In this article I have been sharing ideas about how to practice the presence of God, an extremely important practice if we are to become vibrant Christians and, therefore, assisting our parish to become a vibrant community. Practice the presence of God by placing yourself deliberately before God every day in your prayers and especially during the Divine Liturgy, by praying the Jesus Prayer many times during the day, by wakefulness and inner attention to each word you pray, and by shutting the doors of the senses to be alone with God for a few minutes each day. It is by practicing the presence that the presence becomes real.
Recently a successful businessman shared with me his secret for preventing tensions (I have found that many high-powered businessmen, even men who are not religious, practice moments of meditation through-out the day to relieve tension). He needed to be renewed at least twice a day, he said, so he had a short period of meditation at 10 and 3 o’clock. This did not take the usual form of prayer for he did not think about his problems but dwelt upon God’s power and peace. He placed himself deliberately in God’s presence: he thought of the spiritual strength of Christ flowing into him. He reported that those few minutes a day spent practicing God’s presence resulted in complete renewal of energy and clarity of mind. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on three” (Isaiah 26:3)
“Close your cell door to your body, the door of your lips to words, the interior door to spirits. Hesychia is worship and uninterrupted service to God” (St. John Climacus).
Like a person in a telephone booth with the door open, we are bombarded daily by the many conflicting voices of the crowd. What we need is to close the door on the crowd daily and listen top the voice of God Who is trying so hard to speak to us.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things for modern people to do is to become interiorly still. We usually have the radio or television playing and people around us, or we ourselves, are constantly talking on cell phones. We have to learn how to hear God speaking to us, knowing that He does if only we believe.
In the major cities there were a number of Gentiles who were strongly attracted to Judaism but who were unwilling to convert to Judaism. Known variously in ACTS and other ancient sources as God-fearers, God-worshipers and God-lovers, they were Gentiles involved in but still on the fringe of Judaism. They often attended synagogue services and thus knew quite a bit about Judaism, its scriptures, rituals, festivals, yearnings and vision. Some became benefactors. No doubt they had Jewish friends. But the men did not get circumcised and households may or may not have observed Jewish food and purity laws.
That Gentile God-lovers were Paul’s primary audience not only is affirmed by ACTS and implied in his letters, but also makes good sense. The Gentiles to whom he had the most immediate access were the God-lovers whom he would find in synagogues. So when Paul arrived in a new city, he went first to the synagogue – not because his mission was to convert Jews, but because Gentile God-lovers would be there.
Paul sought to enlist these God-lovers into communities of Christ-followers either by creating a new community in that city or by integrating them into an existing community. Christian groups existed in some cities before Paul got there, including Ephesus and Rome. In others, they were Paul’s creation.
Other then synagogues, the other context in which Paul encountered Gentiles was in his work. Paul supported himself by tent-making, an umbrella term that included making awnings, in great demand in the Mediterranean world, and perhaps more generally in making leather goods. Paul’s skill gave him great mobility and self-sufficiency. The basic tools could be carried in a waist bag. He could travel light and find a job in any significant city. No doubt Paul met some of his Gentile converts while working next to them in a shop.
This understanding of Paul’s audience should affect our image of how Paul preached Jesus. Because of modern images of preaching, we tend to think of Paul standing in front of a crowd, large or small, and proclaiming the Gospel. ACTS sometimes portrays Paul this way; he preaches in synagogues and even in a theater filled with 20,000 people. But it is unlikely that Paul preached in synagogues or to crowds of strangers who were completely unfamiliar with Judaism. What would his message, which make so much use of Jewish language and tradition, have meant to Gentiles who knew nothing abo0ut Judaism?
We need to imagine Paul’s approach as much more conversational. This, I believe, is essential if we are to come to a true understanding of Paul and of his writings, ministry and preaching.
The Orthodox attitude to the Papacy is admirably expressed by a twelfth-century writer, Nicetas, Archbishop of Nicomedia:
My dearest brother, we do not deny to the Roman Church the primacy amongst the five sister Patriarchates; and we recognize her right to the most honorable seat at an Ecumenical Council. But she has separated herself from us by her own deeds, when through pride she assumed a monarchy which does not belong to her office. How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman Pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory wishes to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us from on high, and if he wishes to judge us and even to rule us and our Churches, not by taking counsel with us but at his own arbitrary pleasure, what kind of brotherhood, or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We should be the slaves, not the sons, of such a Church, and the Roman See would not be the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves.’
That was how an Orthodox felt in the twelfth century, when the whole question had come out into the open. In earlier centuries the Greek attitude to the Papacy was basically the same, although not yet sharpened by controversy. Up to 850, Rome and the east avoided an open conflict over the Papal claims, but the divergence of views was not the less serious for being partially concealed.
The second great difficulty was the Filioque. The dispute involved the words about the Holy Spirit in the NiceneConstantinopolitan Creed. Originally the Creed ran: ‘I believe … in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and together glorified. This, the original form, is recited unchanged by the east to this day. But the west inserted an extra phrase ‘and from the Son’ (in Latin, Filioque), so that the Creed now reads ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’. It is not certain when and where this addition was first made, but it seems to have originated in Spain, as a safeguard against Arianism. At any rate the Spanish Church interpolated the Filioque at the third Council of Toledo (589), if not before. From Spain the addition spread to France and thence to Germany, where it was welcomed by Charlemagne and adopted at the semi-iconoclast Council of Frankfort (794). It was writers at Charlemagne’s court who first made the Filioque into an issue of controversy, accusing the Greeks of heresy because they recited the Creed in its original form.
The Great Schism is truly fascinating, lbeit, sad history and we are still living it.
Till the fourth century portraits of Christ were rare. The earliest iconographic representations seem to have been of the apostles, especially of Peter and Paul, though Christ was shown in scenes from the Gospels. Towards the end of the third century there appeared a kind of collective portrait of Christ seated among the apostles, an image based on a common classical form depicting the teacher and his disciples, or a group of learned men gathered round their leader.
There is little doubt that Christians followed contemporary practice in having funerary portraits painted of distinguished church members. These portraits showed the bust of the person, facing forward, often enclosed within a medallion. There may have been some reserve on the part of the church leaders towards these images in the early centuries, for fear of idolatry. But when the pagan ancestor cult was declared illegal at the beginning of the fifth century such portraits of saints survived to become portable icons
The ceremonies of the Great Water-Blessing took hundreds of years to develop. The primary prayer for the blessing of water is from Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (+641). The form of the rite was developed between the 14th to 16th centuries. In most parishes the form is shortened to be celebrated immediately after the Prayer behind the Ambo (i.e., the one said by the priest in the center of the church), and is mainly the Prayer of Sophronius.
Our current liturgical books allow for two blessings: the blessing of water on the Eve as a symbol of the former practice of baptizing converts and the blessing of water on the feast as a celebration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, thus manifesting to humankind that He IS God in human form.
The three-fold blessing of water, as we currently practice it, was found first in the Book of Services of Metropolitan Peter Mohyla (1646). This three-fold blessing involves the use of a three-branch candle, the priest’s breath and then the priest’s hand. The rite of water blessing is then concluded with the plunging of the hand cross into the water three times. This rite is not uniform throughout the Eastern Churches. The symbolism of the three-fold blessing, each which is performed three times, is, of course symbolic of the power of the Holy Trinity being called down to bless the water.
Remember, water is a symbol of life
It is critical, I believe, to once again reiterate Athanasius’ understanding that the redeemed person may become a son/daughter of God only by participation, which implies that far from being mechanical or automatic, the sonship of the redeemed is contingent and mutable: “From this it clearly appears that men can lose their sonship which they have by participation.
Although Athanasius is one of the key Fathers in the development of the Eastern spiritual idea of Theosis or deification, his thought is complex and, because of this fact, we need to step-back and take another look at this whole idea.
The Bible offers a sufficient number of passages about human participation in God for it to be taken as the important image of salvation. But perhaps it does not speak about it as much as the Eastern Fathers of the Church who presented cardinal texts for a foundation of Theosis. The two tests are 2 Peter 1:4 and Psalm 82:6 which Jesus cites in John 10:34-36a:
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (Peter)
I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High (Psalm)
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, “I have said you are gods’?” If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came – and the Scripture cannot be broken – what about the one whom the Father set apart as he very own and sent into the world? (John)
The passage in 2 Peter accentuates one of the leading motifs in the Eastern Church’s understanding of salvation, namely release from the corruption and mortality caused by the evil desires of the world. Eastern theology does not focus so much on guilt as on mortality as the main problem of humanity. In addition, in the East, the concept of sin is viewed as something human beings do and choose for themselves rather than something “hereditary” as a result of the first human beings’ sin in the distant past. Cyril of Alexandria comments on this passage from Peter to note that we are all called to participate in divinity, not just a few “saints”. Although Christ alone is God by nature, all people are called to become God by participation. In such participation we become likenesses of Christ and perfect images of God the Father.
The Eastern Church finds this doctrine of deification (Theosis) not only in the explicit texts just mentioned but elsewhere in the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament. To begin this quest, read Exodus 34:30 where Moses’ face is described as shining or Exodus 7:1 which reveals that Aaron became a god to Pharaoh. Also reread Matthew 17:4, another classic text.
The New Testament does not often use the term ‘mediator’. One also looks for it in vain in the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists. Jesus Christ does not stand between God and his people, nor is he God’s representative, as an angel could be, but he is himself ‘the author of eternal salvation’ (Hebrews 5:9). We do not wish to diminish the value of Christ’s mediation, quite the contrary. We realize, however, that such a doctrine differs from ancient teaching in two respects:
1. In the philosophical systems it was God who, because of his absolute transcendence, needed a mediator to communicate with the world. By contrast in Scripture such communication is made possible only by virtue of God’s condescension. Jesus stands explicitly on the side of God. It is God himself who performs the work of salvation through the man Jesus Christ, his Son.
2.This salvation could become effective only by means of a complete taking on by God of the human condition. The axiom ‘What is not assumed cannot be saved,’ which underlines the development in Irenaeus, is already found explicitly in Origen: ‘The whole man would not have been saved unless he had taken upon him the whole man.’ The union between the human and the divine is a ‘mixture’, a ‘blending’, but of a special type: indeed, the two natures remain unconfused. Christ is the only one to bring about the encounter of the divine transcendence with the hu-man finite, without sacri-ficing the one or ignoring the other. Jesus belongs au-thentically to the two orders of existence, that of God and that of man. ‘God and man have become one.’ The mystery of mediation is therefore the mystery of union, realized by the Son who is ‘one’ with the Father.
The Church struggled for years to come to a clearer understanding of the mystery of God’s Incarnation. In most ways His incarnation is beyond human comprehension. All we can say is that Jesus is truly God and truly man.
You have revealed Yourself to the world today, and Your light,
O Lord, has shined upon us. We recognize
You and exclaim to You: “You have come and revealed Yourself,
O Inaccessible Light.”
Today we celebrate, as a community, the second greatest feast in our church year. It was the first immoveable feast (i.e., a feast that occurs on the same day each year) developed by the Church. The feasts of Easter and Pentecost, because they are directly connected to Jewish feasts, are known as moveable feasts. Some believe that Theophany was developed to replace the Jewish Festival of Lights. In the early Church it celebrated all of the various events wherein God manifested Himself through the Person of Jesus Christ. It included Jesus’ Nativity, the homage of the Wise Men, His Baptism, the miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The name Theophany must be understood in the plural sense for it means a feast of Theophanies.
This feast was first celebrated at the end of the second or at the start of the third century. St. Clement of Alexandria (+215) mentions it in his works. The Apostolic Constitutions, a work of the fourth century, also speaks of this feast. In the third century, Hyppolitus of Rome and Gregory of Neocaesarea mention it. In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom preached about it.
The biblical story of the Baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four Gospels and became the most important of God’s manifestations because this event inaugurated the great ministry of Jesus. It was after His baptism and the murder of John that Jesus began proclaiming the message originally preached by John: Repent, for the Kingdom of God IS at hand.
God’s real presence in creation and, especially, in humankind, was made known through the baptism of Jesus. We see from history that God constantly tried to make Himself known. His total manifestation was, we believe, made through the Person of Jesus, the Christ. Let us celebrate that God IS with us.
Vibrant Christians do not see Christmas as some past event of history but, rather, as something that is actually happening today. Our Church declares the reality of the Lord’s birth in the present tense as we do all of the major holy days of the Church. We declare this day: Christ IS Born! Glorify Him! What can we understand by this religious custom?
Since it is our understanding that there is no time in the spiritual dimension – for God all things are present – we declare that in some mysterious manner God is being born into our world right now. How do we understand this?
Think about it. At this very moment God is keeping all things, us included, in existence. Life is something that always exists. There is no real beginning or end to life since life is God and we share in this life. This being the case, all things are present to God in the universe and His birth, while it took place in the past in our world, is really happening at this present moment in the spiritual realm. To God all is present. There is neither past nor future. There is only the present moment. This is one reason why the spiritual fathers, and some modern-day authors like Eckert Tolle, exhort us to live in the present moment since the present moment is the only thing that is truly real. In fact Tolle wrote a powerful book called The Power of Now. In this book he teaches people how to live in the present moment.
living in the present moment. All of our anxieties, sorrows, disappointments and painful feelings come into existence when we live either in the past or the future. The fact of the matter is that the things of the past and the future are not real and cannot be controlled or changed. All we have is the present moment – the NOW.
How would your life be different if you really believed that Christ was being born RIGHT NOW? Would you be like Mary, Joseph, the shepherds or the Wise Men? Or would you be like Herod?
Once we are able to translate such major feasts as Christmas into the present moment, life changes. Right at this very moment God is coming into our world to help us discover the meaning and purpose of life. Right now He is calling us to come and adore Him! Right now the angels are exhorting us to Glorify Him!
While it may not necessarily be easy for some to live in the present moment, it is truly something we all do well to attempt to accomplish!