A Prayer for Deliverance in Times of Despondency

O my Savior, I am shut in the lion’s den of despondency and have no way of escaping. Many vicious lions, the hosts of wickedness, surround me, taunting me by saying that there is no hope in God, that all is meaningless suffering. The Accuser prowls around me like a roaring lion, baring his teeth and snarling, seeking to devour me with thoughts of hopelessness.

Deliver me, O Living God, and fill me with hope in thee. Crush the dreaded fangs of despondency, break the teeth of despair. Tear apart my encircling enemies with thy right hand.

Rise up and save me, O Lion of Judah. Roar from the heavens and scatter the darkness. Save me from the power of the spiritual lions which seek to devour me, soul and body.

For thy Kingdom endures forever, and thou art the deliverer and rescuer of those who serve thee continually, and thee alone do we worship: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pittville Park, or, How Wisdom is Learned, not Taught

I recently published a new work of short fiction on Vocal, which you can find here. It is for a writing contest on Vocal, and is largely inspired by the semester I lived in England. I am hoping to revisit several of my works of short fiction over the next few months and publish them on Vocal, so that Yearning for Paradise can just be used for theological and Scriptural reflections.

Granted, these are works that I wrote in my roaring twenties, so there are probably more words than there is sense in them; but, hopefully my few stray white hairs attained at the dawn of my thirties will help tone down the angst and silliness inherent in these stories during the editing process.

Singing True Theology 7: Each of Us Has Become Our Own Adam, Part 2

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Return of the Prodigal Son, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

My last post explored the shift in Hebrew religious thought from generational responsibility for sin (dominant in the pre-exilic period) to personal responsibility for sin, a shift which took place in the wake of the Babylonian captivity (6th century BC). A Christian view of the purpose of this shift could be that God was preparing His People for a clearer understanding of the nature of sin and repentance, which would be fully explicated in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ.

No more would people blame their ancestors for the trials and sufferings they experienced. Each person eats their own “sour grapes,” as it were.

Here we will see how the post-exilic notion of personal responsibility for sin sets the stage for a generalization of the parable of the Prodigal Son, making it applicable to everyone. But before we reflect on the parable itself, we will turn to Adam, who was sometimes blamed for his descendants’ sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, Adam factors little into the Hebrew understanding of sin and repentance. Apart from a few scattered references, Adam is not presented in the canonical Old Testament in the same cosmic terms as he is in St. Paul’s letters; it is not even clear in the Old Testament that he was ultimately responsible for sin entering the world. It would not be until the Second Temple period (ca. 515 BC to AD 70) that Jewish theological writings would come to understand present-day sin and sufferings in light of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

(Even then, the Adam and Eve story had tough competition in Jewish speculation with the story of the Watchers/Nephilim and giants in Genesis 6:1-4 for an explanation of how sin entered the world; see The Lord of Spirits podcast for more on that. See also Understanding Sin and Evil for a fascinating Jewish perspective.)

In one such work, written shortly after the close of this period, 2 Baruch (also known as the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, ca. AD 100-120), seeks to cope with the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in AD 70. Like the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the author stresses the importance of free choice: some choose to follow God’s light, while others choose Adam’s darkness (18:2).

Rather than pin all of humanity’s sin on Adam (the ultimate attempt to blame one’s sufferings on one’s ancestors) like the author of 4 Ezra attempted to do (see 3:21-22; 4:30; 7:11-12 and 2 Baruch 48:42-43), 2 Baruch asserts that we are all responsible for our own sins. The author is adamant that there is no “original sin” inherited from Adam that makes it inevitable for people to sin against God and those around them. (For a full explanation of “Original Sin” in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, see this article.) He writes,

For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. And further, each of them has chosen for himself the coming glory…. Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam.

2 Baruch 54:15, 19

“Each of us has become our own Adam.” Each of us has run away from God, each of us has repeated the sin of choosing death rather than life. To each of us, God gives us an opportunity for repentance, calling out, “Where are you? Come back!” (Gen. 3:9).

And in that same sense, each of us is the prodigal son. God waits patiently for our return, eagerly watching the road (Luke 15:20). Like the prodigal son, the only person we can ultimately find responsibility for our sins is…ourselves.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s reflection on this parable in Great Lent: Journey to Pascha beautifully relates the self-inflicted sufferings of the younger brother to each and every person, as we have all, to some degree, traded the freedom of our Father’s home for slavery in exile.

It is easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, pp. 21-22

The hymns for the feast likewise make the connection to my own life: I am the prodigal son.

I, a wretched man, hide my face in shame:
I have squandered the riches my Father gave to me;
I went to live with senseless beasts;
I sought their food and hungered, for I had not enough to eat.
I will arise, I will return to my compassionate Father;
He will accept my tears, as I kneel before Him, crying:
“In Thy tender love for all men, receive me as one of Thy servants and save me!”

“Glory” verse at the Aposticha at Great Vespers, Tone 6

The parable of the Prodigal Son shows us the importance of personal responsibility for our sins—how owning up to our failings, truly repenting from the depths of our heart, is the first step toward reunification with our loving Father.

What this return to God demands, therefore, is the courage to face our sins, to own up for our mistakes and not to blame other people or our circumstances. Courage with humility—”I recognize that I’ve wounded myself, and now it’s time to come clean.”

We spend so much time trying to convince ourselves that we’re OK, that we’re not so bad, that other people are worse, that it’s someone else’s fault; all of these thoughts are barriers to repentance, barriers to the reaching the deep place of the soul, where our real person lives, deep below our personas, self-justifications, and excuses.

Each of us has become our own Adam.

Each of us has become our own prodigal son.

But each of us also has an opportunity to return to God, today, while there is still time.

Singing True Theology 7: Each of Us Has Become Our Own Adam, Part 1

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

What do we do when our actions and decisions lead to suffering? How do we respond to the reality of “I messed up big time”? That is essentially the story of the Prodigal Son, which is this Sunday’s Gospel reading and the focus of our Church’s hymns for the weekend.

Do we take personal responsibility for our actions, or shove the blame onto someone else? Do we ignore that there’s a problem in the first place? All too often we fall into sin, and then when we experience the negative consequences of sin, we feel as though the universe is ganging up on us.

The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were insistent on the importance of taking responsibility for our sins and not blaming others. As we spend some time with their words, we will see how they set the theological stage for the story of the Prodigal Son.

No One else’s Sour Grapes

In the centuries before the exile of 586 BC, resulting from Judah’s destruction by the Babylonians, the individual person had been seen in traditional Hebrew religion as belonging more to the community than being a discrete entity (see Shaye Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, pp. 87-88). One example of this is where God says that He punishes the sins of a family even several generations after those sins were committed:

The Lord passed before him (Moses) and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 ESV; see Numbers 14:18

This proved a convenient way to pass the proverbial buck: in the wake of the Northern Kingdom’s (Israel) destruction by the Assyrians and the carnage being wrought by the Babylonians throughout Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, people were blaming their ancestors for the national disasters happening all around them. “They’re the ones who worshipped idols, so it’s all their fault!”

To this the prophets replied that each person is responsible for their own actions, their own sins, and that children cannot be held responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents. When the LORD restores the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Jeremiah quotes a familiar proverb and turns it on its head.

In those days they shall no longer say: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

Jeremiah 31:29-30 ESV

Likewise, Ezekiel condemns the proverb of sour grapes, asserting that each person has responsibility for his or her own actions.

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Ezekiel 31:20 ESV; see v. 2 for the sour grapes proverb

But God does not desire that any person should be lost, sunk in sin, completely turned away from God. Having established that each person has responsibility for their own actions and can’t blame their ancestors for current tragedies, God reminds the people that He desires that all be saved.

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?… Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!

Ezekiel 18:23, 30b-31 ESV; see 1 Timothy 2:4

So everyone has to eat his or her own sour grapes and deal with the consequences, whether that be by repentance or ruin.

Do our sins affect one another? Yes, of course. Are some sins taught and learned along a span of generations , implicitly or explicitly? Yes, of course. But at the end of the day, each one of us is responsible for our own actions and whatever fallout comes of them.

Whence the difference?

How might we understand the shift from an emphasis on corporate responsibility for sin in Israel’s infancy to an emphasis on personal responsibility for sin centuries later? Does this shift reveal an inconsistency with God toward humans?

Certainly not. Over many centuries, God was gradually preparing Israel for the New Covenant; He was moving them step by step toward the eventual revelation of His Son and Holy Spirit. St. Gregory the Theologian speaks of this slow transition in his fifth theological oration:

“And therefore like a tutor or physician He partly removes and partly condones ancestral habits,” slowly weaning His People first off of idolatry, yet allowing sacrifices; then weaning them off of sacrifices, yet allowing circumcision, which they later yielded as well (see Galatians 5:1-12; 6:15). And they “became instead of Gentiles, Jews, and instead of Jews, Christians, being beguiled into the Gospel by gradual changes” (5.25).

So even in the prophetic careers of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, to Christians, it is evident that God was using the situation of destruction and exile to gradually move His People toward a more accurate understanding of personal responsibility for sin, paving the way for the Good News of His Son, Jesus Christ: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

In the next post, we will pick up where we left off, and see how this notion of personal responsibility for sin ties into the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But what we will also encounter is the lingering question (by the first century) of Adam’s involvement in our sin: to what degree is he responsible for our sin?

Simeon and Zacchaeus: Seeing and Hearing Salvation

Conversion of Zacchaeus, with Christ at right addressing the tax collector, who is seated in a tree at top center, Pietro Monaco, Public Domain

In the Person of Jesus Christ, God is seen and heard. This is one of the fundamental themes in St. Luke’s writings: his Gospel account and its sequel, the book of Acts (Luke 2:20; 7:22; Acts 4:20; 22:15). In these works, seeing and hearing Jesus is seeing and hearing God, it is seeing salvation having become a Man.

Two episodes from the Gospel according to St. Luke will illustrate seeing and hearing salvation, those of Simeon and Zacchaeus. Today is the first preparatory Sunday before Great Lent, and so the Church has given us the story of Zacchaeus today to reflect on what repentance looks like.

And on the Old (Julian) Calendar, tomorrow is the feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, the final liturgical commemoration from the Christmas/Nativity season. Even though the story is about Jesus being presented in the Temple at forty days after birth, Simeon is the protagonist, who had been awaiting the consolation of Israel.

Simeon and Zacchaeus saw and heard Jesus, salvation incarnate, and were never the same again.

My eyes have seen Thy salvation

Simeon is one of the first people in St. Luke’s two-volume history to see and hear God. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Anointed One (Luke 2:26); this we may assume that he heard within his spirit or audibly, whether from God, a prophet, or from an angel.

(NB: Orthodox hagiographic tradition explains that while translating the Septuagint over two hundred years previously, an angel had informed him of as much in relation to the proper translation of Isaiah 7:14.)

But then the Anointed One finally came, and so “he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Luke 2:28-32 ESV

“For my eyes have seen Your salvation.” In this forty-day-old helpless baby, Simeon sees the salvation of the world. He sees his large baby eyes, feels his soft baby skin, hears his baby coos, gurgles, cries (babies make all the sounds).

This is the consolation of Israel, the same God Who showed the world His invincible might when He led His people out of Egypt. Simeon might then have recalled Moses’ song after God saved them from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”

Exodus 15:1-2 ESV; see also Ps. 118:14 and Isaiah 12:2

Just as the Lord had become Moses’ salvation, so now the Lord’s Anointed One became Simeon’s salvation—the same salvation of which he had heard and which he now sees with his own waking eyes.

“For my eyes have seen Your salvation”: a helpless little baby Who was Moses’ salvation as well.

Today salvation has come to this house

Later in St. Luke’s Gospel account, he tells of Zacchaeus, “a wee little man” with a great big desire to see Jesus. He famously climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see Jesus, for which Jesus singled him out among the crush of the crowd.

(Aside: I love the KJV archaic rendering of 19:3, “And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature,” because in modern parlance this makes journalists out to be discriminatory of foreshortened people.)

Jesus says to the tree-climbing taxman, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (19:5). After Zacchaeus gives away what was in all likelihood the entirety of his possessions and wealth, Jesus says to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:9-10).

(Another aside: Perhaps this was aimed at the “grumblers” who were scandalized that Jesus ate with Zacchaeus. The Greek term for “grumbling” (diegonguzon) is the same that is used of the Israelites “grumbling” in the wilderness in the LXX of Exodus 15:24. I can’t help but hear the onomatopoetic quality of this word, imagining a handful of people huddled together and murmuring disaffectedly amongst themselves, “Gongzzzgongzzzgongzzzgongzzz.”)

How has salvation come to Zacchaeus’s house? In the Person of Jesus Christ, Who is salvation incarnate. Like Simeon, Zacchaeus sees and hears the salvation of the world, he eats with the God of Whom Moses had written, “He has become my salvation.” Then, salvation comes to dwell within him, as in the House of the Lord.

In the Person of Jesus Christ, God is seen and heard. And He “came to seek and to save the lost,” a statement that might very well summarize the entirety of St. Luke’s two-volume sacred history.

The Lord came to seek and to save Simeon, who had been waiting for God’s consolation for his people; He came to seek and to save Zacchaeus, who must have known in the depths of his being that something “needed to give”; and He came to seek and to save every generation since, in all times and in all places.

“Today salvation has come to this house,” which is the person who is found by God.

that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you

And so it is that God continues to be seen and heard—Simeon’s and Zacchaeus’ experience of salvation incarnate may become our experience of salvation incarnate. That which the Apostles saw and heard (Acts 4:20; 22:15), they proclaimed to the next generation of Christians, who proclaimed it to the next generation of Christians, who passed this saving faith down to us in through the ascetical-sacramental tradition of the Church (cf. Exod. 13:14; Deut. 6:20).

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship (koinonian) with us; and indeed our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

1 John 1:1-3 ESV

And it is primarily through the Holy Eucharist, in which we see and hear Christ speaking to us even today, that we may enter into communion (koinonia), fellowship, partnership, community, with not only those who have believed in Jesus in all times and all places, but Jesus Himself, with His Father and Holy Spirit.

How is this?

In the Divine Liturgy we hear Christ inviting us to the timeless, mystical “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9), we see the bread and the wine which is truly His Body and Blood, we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8), we find salvation incarnate entering “into my joints, my members, my reins, my heart” (3rd Post-Communion prayer), we find the consolation of Israel consuming our sins with spiritual fire even as we consume the true bread from heaven (John 6:32).

Simeon and Zacchaeus heard and saw God in the Person of Jesus Christ. And today He invites us to see and hear Him as well, that we also may have the fullness of God’s mighty salvation dwelling within the “house” which is our whole self.

Singing True Theology 6: Sacred Love

This post is a continuation of a series on the theological truths found in the Orthodox Church’s hymnography. See the first installment for an explanation of the series.

It has been estimated that the Soviet Union killed anywhere between twenty and sixty-some million of its own people, mostly during the brutal rule of Joseph Stalin. We know that hundreds of thousands of the dead, if not many millions, were faithful Orthodox Christians who suffered for their faith even to their deaths. Many others suffered for Christ in other ways. Tonight at Great Vespers we sing these words in honor of all New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, killed and persecuted by the Soviet government:

Rejoice, new martyrs and confessors of Russia,
the adornment of the Orthodox.
lambs of the new slaughter, fellow warriors, and guardians of the faith,
Blameless intercessors for us with God in the latter years,
who in your sufferings appear as emulators of the first martyrs;
O unshakeable pillars of patient endurance,
entreat God that our souls be granted great mercy.

Fifth sticheron (hymn) at “Lord, I Call Upon Thee.” Here are the hymns for tonight from oca.org.

These new martyrs are modern-day examples of the strength, the “patient endurance,” that only God can give; their lives recall the sufferings of the first martyrs of Christ under the Roman Empire.

Yet, the shedding of blood was not the only way that some witnessed to the beauty of Christianity in Communist Russia. Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998) was a Russian composer who received critical acclaim even from the Soviet authorities: “According to one source he was awarded the Order of Lenin four times, he was hailed as a ‘people’s artist’ and then a ‘hero of Soviet Labor,’ then reaching the dizzying heights of first secretary of the Soviet Union of Composers” (Tony Way’s review of “Georgy Sviridov: Canticles and Prayers”).

He was, however, greatly inspired by Russian Orthodox liturgical music, and sought to reflect the beauty of Orthodox worship of the Living God in his own compositions.

As the program notes for one of his recordings tells us, “Official Communist Party ideology prohibited the composition of sacred works, so Sviridov cleverly circumvented this injunction by composing three sacred choruses under the guise of incidental music for Alexis Tolstoy’s play Tsar Feodor Ioannovich, a historical drama set in the nineteenth century.”

One of these compositions, “Sacred Love,” expresses what I take to be the magnanimity of suffering Orthodox Christians through a haunting melody over an ison-like drone.

You, O sacred love, from the start art persecuted,
Watered with blood. Thou, O sacred love!

ANIMA Choir, Saint Elisabeth Convent, Minsk.

These words seem to suggest that the “Sacred Love” to which they are addressed is simultaneously persecuted Christians, the Church, and Jesus Christ.

Those who are persecuted because of their Christian faith have Christ within them, co-suffering as well—they are joining Him on Golgotha, and their own Golgotha is joined to His. That is what it means to be “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). To be raised with Him, we have to die with Him first (see Romans 6:3-11).

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

The reality of Christians’ suffering and death being joined to Christ’s own suffering and death is perhaps nowhere more striking in the Bible than Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.

And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Acts 9:4-5

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” See how He identifies Himself with His chosen People! Our Lord could have said these same words to those who killed Orthodox Christians under the Roman Empire all the way to the Soviet regime. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Our Lord could have said this to any number of people throughout the past two thousand years who have persecuted those who are called by His name, and who continue to do so.

The memory of the saints reminds us that nothing is impossible with Christ. He comes to be with us in our temptations, He is near in our sufferings. Whatever the world can throw at us—suffering, death, being “canceled,” ridiculed, fired—however the demons can clobber us through these things and through the many temptations we are subject to every day, we have God’s strength as shown in the lives of his witnesses to help us. The memory of saints can inspire us to seek their same “patient endurance” through God’s strength.

This power which overcomes the world is available to us when we die with Him, because we are then raised with Him (Romans 6:8-10). The Lord’s words are true:

“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.”

Luke 21:17-19 ESV

Today we remember all the new martyrs and confessors of Russia “…who in your sufferings appear as emulators of the first martyrs…” They walked in the footsteps of the early martyrs by witnessing to the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ even to the shedding of their blood, social ostracization, temptations, and sufferings.

Yet when they joined their own sufferings to Christ’s, when they willingly ascended their own Golgotha, Christ’s victory over death became their victory over death. And the same victory is possible for us as well.

From the very beginning of Christianity, Christ’s Body has been persecuted, the ground has been watered with the blood of the martyrs. Yet the sacred love within them cannot be killed, for this sacred love is Jesus, who died, and behold he is alive forevermore, and he has the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:17).

The Grass Withers, the Flower Fades

“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field…The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” – Isaiah 40:6,8

A healthy bit of context for Inauguration Day from the Prophet Isaiah. Political upheaval and temporal authority: these are evanescent flowers which last for a short time, then fade.

Where are the emperors of Rome? Where are the great monarchs of Europe? “But the word of our God will stand forever.”

And the Psalmist writes, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore.” – Psalm 125(124 LXX):1-2 ESV

“And She Glorified God”

“And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from your disability.’ And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.” – Luke 13:11-14 ESV

How often are we like this woman, though in a spiritual sense? Do we find ourselves sick of staring at the ground, at our failures, our fears, our insecurities, unable to look up at the sun, at hope, at new life in God? Are we stuck in our habits, our past, even in plans for our future, unable to deal with the present?

Jesus called her to Himself, and everything changed. And the same is possible for us.

Catechetical Homily for the Nativity of Jesus Christ

After St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Catechetical Homily.

If anyone serves the needs of others like Abraham, today let him enjoy the master’s hospitality.
If anyone prays with Hannah’s zeal, today let her rejoice that God hears the prayers of the upright. 
If anyone fasts in repentance as did David, today let him be filled with the joy of the feast. 

For God returns to those who return to Him,
And He is good to those who seek Him with their whole heart. 

Those who do works of mercy, the Lord visits with His mercy;
Those who pray in the temple of their heart, the Lord sits enthroned within them as a kind king;
And those who abstain from food, the Lord teaches to abstain from sin. 

For He Who accepted the widow’s mite also accepts our sincere offerings
If offered out of love for God and neighbor. 

Yet even you who have ignored your neighbors’ needs, today enjoy the Savior’s providential assumption of human nature;
Even you who have spurned prayer, today pray and sing praises to Him Who formed you;
Even you who have not fasted from even a single meal, today the Lord invites you to sit at His table that He may serve you. 

Although He was truly God by nature, the Word of God emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant. 
Although He was not subject to temptations or sufferings, all these things He voluntarily took upon Himself, that He might annihilate temptations and abolish sufferings. 

He Who holds the universe in the palm of His hand is now held in the hands of His foster-father;
He Who upholds all creation by His infinite power now receives nourishment from His mother’s breast;
He Who separated light from darkness now leads the shepherds to the brilliant darkness of the cave. 

That serpent of old, who led Adam by the hand into the depths of Sheol, now fears this New Adam;
He who enslaved all humanity to sin and death is powerless against this helpless baby. 

Therefore, let no one despair or grow despondent, for Jesus Christ has come to heal the brokenhearted,
He has come to proclaim liberty to those held captive by the unbreakable bonds of sin;
He has come to set at liberty those oppressed by the all-consuming appetite of death. 

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.
Christ is born, and the wise men hasten to worship the only wise God;
Christ is born, and the shepherds stand in awe of the Good Shepherd;
Christ is born, and Joseph soothes the Father of the Coming Age;
Christ is born, and Mary feeds Him who never forgets His own children;
For Christ, being born of the Virgin, has become the mediator between God and man, leading us from the darkness of Sheol back to the luminous glory of Paradise. 
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen. 

Nativity Fast Scripture Reflections 5: Full of Glory

On Ezekiel 43:27-44:4, Read at Great Vespers for the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Holy of Holies

In the past two posts, in our reflections on the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Holy of Holies, we have discussed the Old Testament readings for the feast: first Exodus 40 and then 1 Kings 7,8. In the first, we saw how the tabernacle/temple was a type of Mary, as it foreshadowed her becoming the new Place wherein God would dwell. In the second, we moved our focus to Jesus Christ, Who also fulfills that which the temple prefigured: God dwelling among His people in a new, radical way, such that the divine and human natures would be joined in one person.

(See also an older post in which we explore St. Gregory Palamas’ homily on this feast.)

Now, we will move our discussion even closer to home: we will see how the third Old Testament reading for this feast, from the prophecy of Ezekiel, relates not only to Mary and Jesus, but also to all of us.

“It will be when these days are over, on the eighth day, the priests shall offer your whole burnt offerings and your peace offerings on the altar, and I shall accept you,” says the Lord. Then He brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary that faces toward the east, but it was shut. So the Lord said to me, “This gate shall be shut. It shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, because the Lord God of Israel will enter by it; therefore, it shall be shut. As for the prince, he will sit in it to eat bread before the Lord. He will go in by way of the gate chamber and go out the same way.” Then He brought me by way of the north gate to the front of the temple, and I looked, the house of the Lord was full of glory; and I fell on my face.

Ezekiel 43:37-44:4, Orthodox Study Bible

This reading is often shown in the Orthodox Church’s liturgical hymns and the writings of the Fathers to refer to Mary’s continued virginity after Jesus’ birth. Because the Word of God entered her womb, it was shut to all others. We will not discuss the matter of her ever-virginity here, as another article explains the topic comprehensively.

Instead, we will focus on the last verse from this reading: “…and I looked, the house of the Lord was full of glory; and I fell on my face.” Falling on your face is the standard reaction to God’s glory in the Bible. Why? It’s overwhelming, it far exceeds what our puny little minds can fathom. Faced with the presence of the Creator God, all we can do is fall on our faces.

And so this should certainly color how we view the human person as well. We were created to be receptacles for the divine glory, to be permeated with His uncreated glory, power, energy, life, and light.

Just as Mary became the Place of God’s presence, as Jesus united God’s presence with His true human nature, so are Christians who are united to God in the Church also the Place where God’s glory dwells. We might look at any of the saints and say, “and I looked, the house of the Lord was full of glory…”

When we persevere in the ascetical-sacramental life of the Church, the whole person becomes a temple which offers sacrifices to God, recalling Psalm 141(140):2, “Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense; the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”

The goal of the Christian life is to be the temple of God, the place where He is worshipped. St. Ephrem the Syrian shows this by likening the Christian person to the stone upon which Jacob poured oil in Genesis 28:18, naming that place where he saw the vision of the ladder leading to heaven Bethel, “the house of God.” By drawing this comparison, St. Ephrem is suggesting that those who are sealed in chrismation have become “the house of God,” the Place where He dwells and where He receives our sacrifices.

The oil again that Jacob poured, upon the stone when he sealed it, that it should be between him and God, and that he might offer there his tithes; lo! in it is a symbol of your bodies, how by chrism they are sealed as holy, and become temples for God, where He shall be served by your sacrifices.

St. Ephrem, Hymns on the Epiphany 3.9, p. 269. NPNF translation.

Following a theme which we have been dwelling on, St. Ephrem explains that the ultimate end of the Incarnation was to make the human person the dwelling place of God.

All these havens He passed through to come and make our bodies havens for His dwelling. Therefore let each of us become His dwelling! ‘Whoever loves me, we will come to him, and make our haven with him’ (says) the Godhead, whom, without a single creature being lost to Him, a small, humble mind can accommodate.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Homily on Our Lord” 59, p. 332. Mathews Jr. and Amar translation. See John 14:23. Note 285 explains that “mind” may be translated as “soul.”

The indwelling of God in the human person gives force to St. Ephrem’s powerful injunction to live the Christian life to the fullest, to not turn back to the “old person” (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9) who is dead and buried (Rom. 6:7), but to live fully alive in Christ (Rom. 6:8-11).

For by baptism our Lord made new your old age—
He, the Carpenter of life, Who by His blood formed and built a temple for His dwelling.
Do not allow that old man
To dwell in the renewed temple.
O body, if you have God live in your Temple,
You will also become His royal palace. 
- St. Ephrem, Hymns on Virginity 1.2, p. 262. McVey translation. 

If we have God live in our temple, we will also become His royal palace. If we abide by Christ’s Gospel commandments, believing in Him, repenting daily, and participating in the life of the Church, which is His Body (Eph. 1:22-23), we also will be “full of glory,” the same divine glory which shone from Moses’ face in Exodus 34:19-35.

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

2 Corinthians 3:18

And this, finally, is what the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Holy of Holies points toward: every Christian becoming a temple of God, full of God’s glory, shining with His uncreated light. This is what the Old Testament readings from Exodus, 1 Kings, and Ezekiel all signify in types, symbols, and images, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and as such, have a potential for holiness and perfection that far exceeds our ability to understand.

So our salvation is not merely “getting into heaven,” but is being filled with God’s uncreated glory, growing in union with our Creator God in a dynamic relationship of love and sacrifice.

Photo credit: Ezekiel’s vision, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld