The Spirituality of the Christian East — 20170820

ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Man, according to the scriptures, is created “in the image of God”. To be like God, through the gift of God, is the essence of man’s being and life. In the scriptures it says that God breathed into man, the “Breath [or Spirit] of life”. This teaching has given rise to the understanding in the Eastern Church that man cannot be truly human, truly himself, without the Spirit of God. Thus St. Irenaeus (3rd century) said in his well-known saying, that “man if body, soul and Holy Spirit.” This means that for man to fulfill himself as created in the image and unto the likeness of God – that is, to be like Christ Who is the perfect, divine, and uncreated Image of God – man must be the temple of God’s Spirit. (An aside. This is why the Eastern Church always talks about humans being a three-part composite: body, soul and Spirit. It was only in the west where humans were defined as body and soul. This is also why I believe that Freud came up with his tri-part division of the mind: Id, Ego and Superego).

If man is not the temple of God’s Spirit, then the only alternative is that he is the temple of the evil spirit. There is no middle way. Man is either in an unending process of life and growth in union with God by the Holy Spirit, or else he is an unending process of decomposition and death by returning to the dust of nothingness out of which he was formed, by the destructive power of the devil. This is how the Eastern Church’s spiritual tradition interprets the “two ways” of the Mosaic law: “I call heaven and earth to witness… that I have set before you life and death… therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord, obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for that means life to you” (Dt 30:19-20).

Gaining a Deeper Understanding of the New Testament — 20170820

In discussing the formation of the New Testament (NT), one has to search the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Tradition, which is conveyed by the writings of the Fathers, gives us the context in which the NT was formed. Indeed, patristic citations and lists of books are the two main criteria for judgment of the canon. Yet neither criterion is totally satisfactory. For instance, when Clement of Rome, or Ignatius, or Polycarp cited a book that ultimately was recognized as canonical, just what authority was he giving to this book, since we do not know that the concept of either a NT or a canon was yet formulated? Past discussions simply assumed that these early Fathers had a concept of canonical and non-canonical. And, indeed, even later when there was a concept of a NT, we find strange phenomena in patristic citations. Origen cited 2 Peter at least six times. Yet in his canonical list, he doubted whether 2 Peter should be included. In other words, even a 3rd century, patristic citation of a book ultimately accepted as canonical does not mean that the Father thought it canonical. On the other hand, absence of a citation of a NT book (e.g., during the 2nd century) does not necessarily mean that the Fathers did not know the book or did not consider it of value. There would be little occasion to cite some of the shorter NT works like Philemon and 2-3 John.

We know from history that some apocryphal gospels, epistles and acts received acceptance for a certain period. Such sub-apostolic writings as 1-2 Clement, Didache, Hermas and Barnabas, continued to be considered as Scripture even into the 4th and 5th centuries. Codex Alexandrinus had 1-2 Clement. One can discern why such work were highly valued. Many of them bore names of disciples of the apostles (e.g., Barnabas was a friend of Paul; Clement was thought to be the Clement mentioned in Philemon 4:3 and a successor of Peter at Rome. Moreover, very early sub-apostolic works like 1 Clement and Didache, may well have been written before a NT work like 2 Peter. The real difficulty is not why such works were thought of as canonical, but why the Church did not finally accept them as canonical.

Hopefully my readers are beginning to see that a fundamentalistic approach to the NT is not really possible.

Learning Our Faith From the Greek Fathers of the Church — 20170820

Gregory lays down a crucial principle in his biblical analysis of Proverbs 8:22, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his ways with a view to his works.” Many early Christian exegetes (scholars who study the meaning of biblical texts) saw this text as pointing to the divine Word, “the true Wisdom.” If so, the text appears to text appears to teach that the Son was created, a problem for all who would affirm his timeless, eternal nature. Gregory solves the difficulty by teaching that when biblical texts such as Proverbs speak of the Son as caused or created, they are referring to the economy/dispensation of salvation. The Son, God’s Wisdom, is sent by the Father “with a view to his works,” that is, “our salvation.” Thus, those texts in which we find the Son described as caused or created “we are to refer to the humanity [assumed by the Son], but all that is absolute and unoriginate we are to reckon to the account of his Godhead.

So you see that when the Church, inspired and guided by God’s Spirit, came to the understanding that Jesus was God incarnate, they had many different issues to address. How can a timeless, eternal God come into time? So did Christ, the Word, always have a human nature?
What of those texts in which the Son is described as a servant? Can one who is truly God rightfully be described in such a fashion? Yes, Gregory replies, if the Son’s service is linked to his incarnation, “to birth and to the conditions of our life with a view to our liberation, and to that of all those whom he has saved, who were in bondage under sin.”

One by one Gregory leads his audience through the biblical verses that might pose a problem and, at first glance, appear to threaten Christ’s deity. The basic underlying principle remains the same. Some texts highlight “that nature which is truly unchangeable and above all capacity of suffering,” and others center on Christ’s “passible humanity…. This, then, is the argument concerning these objections, so far as to be a sort of foundation and memorandum for the use of those who are better able to conduct the inquiry to a more complete working out.”

All of this is intended to help you, my readers, focus on “Who You Think Jesus Christ is?”

Understanding Our Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church — 20170820

This weekend, as I had indicated in the Bulletin last week, we also celebrate the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. It is a Marion Feast and, because it is our predominant celebration we still include the resurrection of Christ. We only include this feast in our weekend celebration so that we can celebrate it as a community. Why even do this? The feasts of Mary reinforce what we know about human life through the feasts of Jesus. The Church has purposely established six major feasts of Mary so that we know that what God revealed through Jesus is for both men and women. The Jesus message is for both men and women.

The problem is that we continue to use “masculine” language to express the meaning of God’s revelation through Jesus. Why? Because Jesus was a male. So, desirous that there be no confusion about the message, the Church also highlights the events in the life of Mary which are parallel events to the life of Jesus. Again why? So that there is no doubt whatsoever that God’s message is for both women and men.
This feast has elements of both “death” and “resurrection.” This feast is about the “death” and “resurrection” of Mary, a woman. Although I would agree that the Church seems to be male centered, the structure of our worship, that is the feasts, would tell us that the Church desires to assure us that men and women are equal in God’s Kingdom and that the Jesus message is for all.

Mary, we quickly learn, through the worship of our Church, is God’s revelation and she represents what is true about us if we accept the revelation of God through Jesus. Jesus does not reveal what is true only about men. He reveals what is true about all humans. Mary is the proof of this revelation.

So the Dormition of Mary reveals that, even though our human bodies will go through decay, our souls, spirits and personalities will continue after physical death. The small child that Jesus holds in the icon of the Dormition is the “ESSENCE” of Mary – her soul and her person. Just as her soul and person go into eternity, so it is true about us.

This, of course, is why our Church celebrates the Dormition of Mary as a major feast. It tells us that Who We Are continues forever in the life of God because this is what God revealed through Jesus, the Son! Just as Jesus reveals the existence of eternal life, so does Mary.

 

Reflections on the Scripture Readings for this Weekend — 20170813

The first reading this weekend is taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (4:9-16). In this passage Paul contrasts, with biting irony, the humiliations and sufferings of the apostles with the smugness of the Corinthians who, in forming factions, make pretense of a spiritual superiority over their fellow Christians.

Every supernatural and natural quality by which they may be distinguished is God’s gift. The Corinthians have lost the sense of their own indigence and spiritual poverty that is the basic disposition of the true Christian. They behave as though they have already reached the summit of perfection and are reigning in the Kingdom of Heaven. The apostles, on the contrary, have been made a spectacle of all the universe, like the basest of men, criminals condemned to die in the games of the arena.

From biting sarcasm Paul turns to tender pleading. He spoke sharply to bring about the amendment of the faction-split community. A father has a duty to correct his children and Paul has a relationship to the Corinthians not shared by any other preacher. He has begotten them in Christ.

Our second reading, taken from Matthew’s Gospel, retells the story of Christ curing a possessed boy whom His apostles were unable to cure. It is important to note that the boy’s father first brought the child to the Lord’s Apostles, believing that they had the power to cure the boy.

After the Lord cures the boy, the apostles ask Him why they could not cure the boy. Jesus’ response was: “Because you have so little trust…. I assure you, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed…. Nothing would be impossible for you.”

Trust is the most important sentiment we must develop if we are to have a true relationship with God. We must trust that He will never do anything to hurt us or punish us and that He will always be there to help us go through the struggles of life.

How do I learn how to trust God? By refusing to think of Him as a God who is without compassion for me in my struggles – by refusing to believe that His love is conditional. Our God unconditionally loves us and there is nothing we can do that will change His unconditional love.

CALLED TO HOLINESS — 20170813

As I think about the two great feasts that our Church celebrates in August, I am reminded that the call to holiness is a call to embrace a belief in (1) the fact that human life is a sharing in the life of God Himself, and (2) human life is eternal. The Fathers of the Church based their belief in the Jesus message because of His wondrous Resurrection from the dead. Why? Because it helped them wipe out one of humankind’s greatest fears, the fear of death.

So the call to holiness is a call to not fear death but, rather, to truly see it as a means of experiencing eternal life and growing in our union with our Creator. People only fear death because they don’t know what comes after earthly life. We know, through faith, that there is life after death and so, if we believe, we do not fear it as people do who have no faith.

People ask me how I can believe in life-after-death when I have no proof. If I had proof, I wouldn’t need to believe. I have something greater, FAITH IN A LOVING GOD.

The Spirituality of the Christian East –2070813

Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He speaks the words of God. He does the work of God. The person who obeys Christ and follows His way and does what He does, loves God and accomplishes His will. To do this is the essence of spiritual life. Jesus has come that we may be like Him and do in our own lives, by His grace, what He Himself has done.

A person can abide in Christ, accomplish His commandments and be in communion with God the Father only by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in his life. Spiritual life is life in and by the Holy Spirit of God.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and is sent into the world through Christ so that human persons can fulfill God’s will in their lives and be like Christ. The spiritual fathers of the Eastern Church say that the Holy Spirit makes people to be “Christ’s,” that is, the “anointed” children of God. This also is the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament writings:

But you have been anointed by the Holy One and you know all things… and the unction [charisma] you have received from Him abides in you…His anointing teaches you about everything and is true and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abided in Him…. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit which He has given us…. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His own Spirit (1 John).

The teaching of St. John is, of course, the same teaching as that of St. Paul. It is the classical teaching of the Eastern Church, make popular in recent times by St. Seraphim, that the very essence of Christian life, is the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. Without the Spirit there is no life.

Learning Our Faith From the Greek Fathers of the Church — 20170813

Although I realize that this article might seem to be very dense for many, what I do hope happens, if you read this, that you may gain a deeper appreciation of what has gone into the formulation of our religion through the efforts of many great persons. The dogmas that we believe in are truly complex. They are, however, beliefs that connect us directly to God and express our connection to Him in a very unique and marvelous way.

As you might guess, other questions arise when we seriously think about those things we believe in, especially that God as Three-In-One.

How are we to make sense of those biblical texts that seem to picture the Son as inferior to the Father? The Son sleeps, hungers, struggles in Gethsemane and dies on the cross. At times Jesus’ knowledge seems limited. For instance, in speaking of the last day and hour, Jesus comments that, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If the Son’s knowledge is less than the Father’s, how can he share a common nature with Him? Is the possibility of a trinitarian model undercut by texts such as these?

These are significant questions regarding the incarnate Son that must not be sidestepped, yet Gregory dares to answers them in one sentence. “What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that nature in him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of him who for your sakes made himself of no reputation and was incarnate – yes, for it is no worse things to say – was made man, and afterwards was also exalted.” The key to these difficult biblical texts is learning “to know which passages refer to his [divine] nature, and which to his assumed human mature.

Of course, the Son was not always incarnate. “He who is now man was once the uncompounded. What he was he continued to be; what he was not he took to himself.” In his saving descent into our world, human nature is “united to God, and became one [person].” In a series of vibrant shining contrasts Gregory highlights the dual nature of Christ’s person and actions.

Remember, the Church believes that Christ is truly and fully God and truly and fully Man and that one of His natures does not rule the other.

Understanding Our Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church — 20170813

On Tuesday of this coming week, our Church celebrates the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God – Her Falling Asleep. Tradition tells us that when the apostles opened the grave for St. Thomas to pay his respects (You will recall that he was absent when Jesus first appeared to the apostles after His death), her body was not there, only the funeral clothes in which the body had been wrapped. The Apostles realized then that Mary had been taken up body and soul into heaven.

From the beginning of the sixth century, it was believed by many that the tomb of the Mother of God was to be found in the Church of the Dormition in Gethsemane, while the Church on Mt. Sion was regarded as the site of her dormition. However, historians, to this day, cannot prove anything certain concerning the place of her death and burial. Some believe that she died in Jerusalem, others claim that she died in Ephesus where St. John was believed to have taken her after Jesus’ death. Even today a house in Ephesus is pointed out as the one where the Mother of God allegedly lived. (If you take a tour of the ruins of Ephesus, guides will always point out a house where they believe she lived with John).

The liturgical cult of the Mother of God began with the Council of Ephesus (431), which defined the dogma of her Divine Motherhood. In the words of the holy Fathers prior to the fourth century, no mention is made about the Dormition. It is not until after the fourth century that, on the basis of tradition, church writers began to write about the final moments of the life of Mary. Among those Fathers of the East that wrote about her are Andrew of Crete (+712) and John Damascene (+749).

Toward the end of the seventh century, and at the beginning of the eighth century, church writers began to direct their attention not only to Mary’s wonderful Dormition but also to her ascension into heaven body and soul. John Damascene clearly believed in the assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God body and soul into heaven.

This feast is one of the oldest of Marian feasts. It began in Jerusalem shortly after the Council of Ephesus. In the sixth century this feast received its present title. Originally, Theodosius prescribed that the Dormition be kept on January 6th and the Assumption on August 9th. Emperor Mauricius commanded it be celebrated on August 15th and extended it throughout the empire for on that day he gained a brilliant victory over the Persians.

Flowers are blessed on this feast!

The Divine Liturgy and Our Worship of God — 2018081

During this coming week our Church will celebrate one of the 12 major feasts of our Church, namely the “Dormition of the Mother of God.” We will also celebrate it, since it is within the octave of the feast, next weekend as a community.

As you may or may not know, while the six major feasts in honor of the Mother of God have special prayers, especially the Hymn to the Mother of God, they do not have special Antiphons but only the other moveable prayers.
The Hymn to the Mother of God, which is prayed during the Anaphora, is most beautiful. It reads:

Seeing the dormition of the Most Pure one, the Angels were filled with awe at how the Virgin went from earth to heaven. In you, O Pure Virgin, the laws of nature were overcome: in giving birth you remained a virgin and in you death heralded life. You remained a virgin after giving birth and remained alive after death, always saving your descendants, O Mother of God.

I would call upon you to reflect upon what we pray on this feast. First, we claim again our belief that her body did not suffer decay but, rather, that she was taken body and soul into the next life after her death. Second, her life-long virginity is again declared, which is one of our solemn beliefs. And last, that physical death is only a proclamation that life is eternal and without end.
The Tropar and Kondak for this feast also is filled with what we believe about life.

TROPAR
O Mother of God, in giving birth You still preserved virginity; and in your falling-asleep you did not forsake the world. You are the Mother of Life and heaven transferred to life, and through your prayers have delivered our souls from death.
KONDAK
The grave and death did not detain the Mother of God. She prays perpetually and is our unfailing hope of intercession; for He Who dwelt in the womb of the Ever-virgin, transferred to life the Mother of Life.

Hopefully my readers can see how our liturgical worship also presents again and again the basic “dogmas” of our religion. We pray what we believe, or at least what we are called to believe by our Church. When we do celebrate this feast next weekend, ask yourself what you truly believe!