“First you lose your morals, then you lose your faith”

On 2 Corinthians 4:6-15

Archbishop Michael (Dahulich) would sometimes explain in Scripture classes during seminary that the reason people often leave the Faith is not primarily because of what we believe, but because of how we are expected to live. “First you lose your morals,” he would say, “then you lose your faith.” He often related this progression to the Hebrews under the Old Covenant—first they abandoned God by their actions, then they discarded the beliefs which had by that time become superfluous.

The way we live is where the rubber hits the road. A Christian lifestyle is inextricably connected to the Christian Faith. I can say I’m a Christian, but do my actions identify me as a follower of Jesus Christ?

If my greatest aim in live is gratifying my desire for pleasure and enjoyment, then haven’t I already in a very real way decided that the Judgment of the living of the dead isn’t really going to happen? If I have already committed myself to selfish enjoyment in this life, haven’t I already in a very real way abandoned my hope of the world to come?

(Not that pleasure and enjoyment are bad in themselves. Even Jesus was accused of being gluttonous and a wino [Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34]! The important thing is moderation—do I control my enjoyments in a healthy manner or do they control me?)

Yet, the reality is that we’re weak and temptation is strong. On our own, we don’t stand a chance of living the way that Christ taught us to. As the Desert Fathers say, the demons of have been tempting people for thousands of years—they know the science of temptation, they know how to exploit our weaknesses. Add to that the reality that these bodies made of earth desire the enjoyments of the earth. Even our own weak bodies war against us in the struggle against temptations, against the overweening desire for food, sex, money, status, control, etc. Some form of these desires is not far from all of us.

(This is why we should mourn when we see a public Christian leader/pastor fall into sin. Instead of judging them, we should say, “Him today, me tomorrow.” That is, it could just as easily be me next time.)

And so we often find that although the desire to live a Christian life is there, the pull of the world is so strong that once we indulge in so-called “little sins,” they turn into big sins. We totter, slip, we fall. What began as an apparently harmless action has the potential of being the cause of spiritual death. It builds and builds, and finally Christian doctrine and living becomes superfluous, because they get in the way of self-indulgent obsessions. “First you lose your morals, then you lose your faith.”

Yet, even in these weak bodies made of dirt, which so easily fall, God’s holiness is still able to dwell in them as in a holy temple; this is so that if we triumph over sin, we’ll know that it’s God-in-us Who grants us the victory and that it hasn’t been won by our feeble strength.

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

2 Corinthians 4:7-11

Yes, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we don’t have to live according to the overweening desire for pleasure and enjoyment, for gratification and selfishness, because these weak bodies, these “earthen vessels,” like easily broken ceramic jars, can contain the power of the victorious Lord Jesus. Within a chipped and fragile ceramic jar there can be rubies and gold and treasures of incredible value. That’s how it is with us, except the treasure within is infinitely valuable, because it’s the indwelling presence of God Himself.

We’re often hit on every side by temptations, by demons working in collusion with the weakness of our bodies, to lead us into a breach of Christian morality; yet even in the midst of this spiritual clobbering, if we have faith in the Risen Lord, as St. Paul writes, “the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”

Yet, this manifestation is not always revealed in this life. For some of the saints, it is—they show God’s miraculous power in their lives by working miracles through the touch of a hand, by reading people’s hearts, even by shining with God’s Uncreated Light. Yet for all Christians, “the life of Jesus” will not be fully manifested in our bodies until the Resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.

Then, if we have endured to the end (Matt. 10:22; 24:13), we will be like Jesus when He was raised from the dead (1 John 3:2): immortal, perfectly holy, no longer subject to restriction or temptations.

As Jesus teaches, those who were faithful to Him in this life will be raised up to the resurrection of eternal life, with the power of His divinity shining in and through our glorified bodies. Yet those who were not faithful to Him, who lived for themselves, who rejected the prodding of their consciences, who abandoned Christian morality, will be raised up to the resurrection of judgment.

“…For the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

John 5:28-29

So it makes a huge difference how we live! One little moral slip has the possibility of becoming an addiction, a passion, a terrible habit; yet, the building up of good habits, by God’s grace, has the opposite potential of protecting us from falling into sin.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem connects the actions done in the body with our eternal state in the following explanation given to people about to be baptized:

“We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past.”

Catechetical Lectures 18.19

This is why, in this life, we must teach the body to pray, teach the body to fast, teach the body to love righteousness. “We revere [the body], we love it, we struggle to purify ourselves of sins, so that it too may be glorified” at the resurrection of the dead. (Metropolitan Hierotheos, Life after Death, 228).

Though it may be difficult, painful, we struggle against sin by forming good daily habits that make it more difficult to fall. And if we fall into sin, we need to get into the habit of confessing it as soon as humanly possible, not putting it off a day or an hour longer than is necessary. How we live—what we have done and what we have failed to do—has eternal consequences.

For this reason, St. Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts his catechumens:

“Therefore, brethren, let us be careful of our bodies, nor misuse them as though not our own. Let us…be careful of it as our own; for we must give account to the Lord of all things done through the body. Do not say, no one sees me; do not think that there is no witness of a deed.”

Catechetical Lectures 18.20

***

Archbishop Michael would say, “First you lose your morals, then you lose your faith.” How true this is for our time, and how difficult it truly is to live a Christian life! Often we might feel like we’re being clobbered by temptations, getting it from all sides. But like a ceramic jar, we who believe in Christ carry not only his death but also the glory of His resurrection within our bodies, a glory which will be manifested in the righteous at the resurrection of the dead, a treasure more precious than any earthly riches.

And even if we stumble in the Christian life, even if it seems like we can’t do it, all we need to do is have the desire to endure to the end, to recognize our weakness, and to call on God for strength. Then, with faith in God, His grace will be enough for us, for as He told St. Paul, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The way we live in this life will have eternal consequences for good or for ill, so even the smallest moral failing has the possibility of leading us to abandon Christ entirely. If we consistently give in to the overweening desire for food, sex, money, status, control, etc., then eventually our faith will become superfluous to us. These things become bad habits and hijack our moral compass, leading to spiritual death. Yet for those who endure to the end, the Lord has promised us eternal life—His own light shining in our glorified, victorious, resurrected bodies.

To this effect, we will close with these wise words from C.S. Lewis (whom my seminary buddies affectionately called “St. Clive the Close-enough”):

“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 132

Clothed in White

On Matthew 22:1-14

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:11).

This passage might be confusing at first glance, because we’ve just heard how the king had sent his servants out to the main roads to bring everybody into the feast. Why, then, does he kick out this man?

It was likely the custom at the time for the host at a wedding banquet to provide all the guests with a special garment—this would show that he or she had been invited. So, the fact that this man didn’t have a wedding garment would have been an insult to the host, who would have made it available to him.

To better understand what’s going in this parable, it would be helpful to examine its context in Scripture.

The setting of this parable comes after Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and before His arrest on Holy Thursday. It is one of a number of parables that Jesus tells before His arrest that speak of the kingdom of heaven and who will be worthy of it

On the one hand, He speaks of the importance of faith, good works, watchfulness, and repentance—these are the qualities the righteous will have, those who are accounted worthy by God of inheriting the heavenly kingdom.

Yet on the other hand, He warns of judgment for those who do not repent, for who those who have shut God and their neighbor out of their lives and hearts.

That’s the Scriptural setting of this parable.

Jesus had begun the parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son.” The parable is a vehicle for teaching on spiritual reality.

So when we get to the part about the man without a wedding garment, Jesus represents the kind of person who has been invited to enjoy in the wedding feast, that is, the joy of the kingdom of heaven, yet who wants to be there on his own terms.

What are his own terms? He doesn’t have a wedding garment, which would have been supplied to him by the host. This could be because he refused to accept one when he entered, or that he got his so filthy that he couldn’t wear it anymore. Either way, he didn’t want to be there on the host’s terms.

This wedding garment corresponds to the white garment that those who are baptized in the Orthodox Church are clothed with right after their baptism.

In the Orthodox baptism service, the white garment symbolizes being clothed with the Holy Spirit—it represents that purity of soul and heart that is from being “washed whiter than snow” in the waters of repentance. The soul which is clothed with the Holy Spirit is pure white because it has been cleansed of all its past sins, and so it is pure and spotless in God’s eyes.

That is why at the baptism service the priest prays that the newly-illumined Christian will keep their baptismal garment pure and not dirtied, that is, that they will preserve their baptismal purity of soul by the continued indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

He prays, “Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which thou hast clothed him, upholding inviolate in him, by Thy grace, the seal of the Spirit.”

And just as the Holy Spirit had hovered over the primordial waters at the creation of the world, so is the Holy Spirit present at the baptismal font, where He re-creates the person being baptized, restoring them to Adam and Eve’s perfection before the fall.

So preserving our spiritual white garment means to be clothed with compassion, goodness, love for one another—to live and walk in the Spirit; to talk the talk and walk the walk; to live the way that God intended us to live from the beginning of creation. This is the life of union with God, in which we attract the grace of the Holy Spirit by the way we live.

And, most importantly, preserving our baptismal garment means continual repentance.

Because when we sin, we dirty our spiritual baptismal garment. When we despise God’s commandments and live the way we want to live instead, our pure, white baptismal garment loses its bright whiteness and becomes filthy.

By sinning, we chase away the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Whom we received at baptism.

As our prayers teach us, we sin voluntarily and involuntarily every day (and if we’re not aware of that, we have some work to do). And every time we sin, that’s another ketchup stain on our pure white garment. That’s another tear, another rip. And the more we sin, the more accustomed we get to living contrary to Christ’s Gospel commandments, the less we notice how dreadful our formerly white garment looks.

Sadly, some of those who are baptized reject their baptism entirely by the way they live, and so reject the possibility of having a pure baptismal garment—that is, their souls become so filthy with sin that they cast off their baptismal grace. Maybe they want to go to heaven, but on their own terms.

They are like that man who was found without a wedding garment. When the king approached him and said, “Friend, how did you get in here? Where’s your garment?” he had nothing to say. He was totally speechless. He was then cast out of the wedding feast into outer darkness.

This man represents all those who might have made a good beginning, but did not endure to the end, they did not seek to preserve the seal of the Holy Spirit which they received at baptism.

Yes, they entered wedding feast, that is, the Church—they have received the food and drink of this feast, which is the Bridegroom’s Body and Blood—yet they refused to preserve the grace of their baptism, and therefore make themselves unworthy to be temples of the Holy Spirit.

We will recall that the priest prays at baptism that the newly-illumined will preserve the “seal of the Spirit” by God’s grace.

This “seal” is something like a down-payment: God has given a down-payment of sorts to those who are baptized—this is a seed of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

But it is up to them, then, to encourage the grace of the Holy Spirit by living according to Christ’s Gospel commandments, by the law of love.

This is what St. Paul is talking about in today’s Epistle reading when he writes, “But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:21-22).

He has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee: this is that down-payment of the grace of the Spirit that we can either cultivate or ignore, or even totally reject.

This is that wedding garment which symbolizes the soul being clothed with the Holy Spirit.

***

Jesus ends the parable by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” “Many” was an Aramaic expression meaning “everyone,” so what Jesus is really saying is that everyone is called to the wedding feast, everyone is called to enjoy the presence of God’s heavenly kingdom, the eternal wedding feast of the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Yet few are chosen. That is, we decide if we will be part of the chosen. It’s God’s business to call, to invite—He invites all to be with Him. But it’s our business to become one of the chosen.

So, how do we do this? If we look closely at our own lives, what do we find? Do we think that we’ve been working to preserve the purity of our baptismal garment, or have we been actively filthying it?

Have we been trying to live life on our own terms instead of God’s terms?

The good news for us is that there is always an opportunity for repentance. In this life, there is always an opportunity to turn our lives around. The man who was cast out of the wedding banquet represents those who are found without the grace of the Holy Spirit at the judgment of the living and the dead. Yet in this life, there is always time for repentance.

St. Isaac the Syrian even said that this life has been given to us for repentance. Why? Because we sin every day, we turn from God in our hearts often. And if we don’t recognize that, we need to look more closely at our lives.

If we sin every day, that means we need to repent every day.

The reality is that even those who are baptized often choose me over my neighbor, we often choose pleasure over discipline, we choose money and power over God, we choose my way over God’s way.

That is why in confession, when we repent honestly, laying our hearts open before the Lord, He is able to cleanse our baptismal garment, making it as pure and white as it was on the day of our baptism.

In the holy mystery of repentance, we have an opportunity to be real with God about the spiritual ketchup stains and tears on our baptismal garment:

“That rip is from when I lusted after that person.” “That stain is from when I harbored resentment and anger against that person.” “That goopy spot is from where I refused to forgive someone.”

And when we sincerely confess our sins, when the grace of the Holy Spirit is restored to us, we once again live lives that invite the grace of the Holy Spirit, rather than chasing Him away.

May the words the priest prays over the newly-baptized Christian soldier also be true for us: may the Lord preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which He has clothed us, upholding inviolate in him, by God’s grace, the seal of the Spirit.

Killing a Crocodile: The Divinity of Jesus at Stake

A new survey has found that about two thirds of American Evangelicals now agree with the statement, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” And while this statistic is actually better than the previous two years, it should still be startling to Christians of any stripe to find out that a solid two-thirds of Evangelical Christians are essentially Arians, denying the divinity of God—startling, because this survey might suggest that Christians of other traditions also don’t truly understand the importance of Jesus’s divinity.

Therefore, this survey ought to serve as a reminder of what we believe about Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

But why is this question a big deal? What difference does it make if “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” or not?

What it boils down to, as it always should when discussing theology, is salvation. If Jesus is not God, we are not saved, we are dead in our sins, our human nature remains unhealed.

If Jesus is not God, we are separated from God, and we have no hope; then, as St. Paul says, “we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

An analogy is in order. I had a High School biology teacher named Mr. Walters. He was easily one of the best teachers I ever had. He was just really cool—shaved head, earring, Monty Python references, the works. Before becoming a teacher, he was a research scientist and specialized in lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis, a parasitic disease caused by microscopic worms which causes huge swelling in various body parts.

Before teaching, Mr. Walters had traveled to Papua New Guinea to work with the indigenous natives who were plagued by this disease. Yet to treat them, he had to get close enough to them to treat them; and the only way they would trust him, to let him research this disease among them and treat them was to become one of them, to join their tribe.

To this end he went through a period of initiation: he had to kill a crocodile (which the other natives considerately captured for him and held down), he had to get a full-back tribal tattoo, etc. When he was finally received into the tribe, he was given a ceremonial spear and bow.

Once he joined the tribe, he could finally work with them to treat this terrible disease. He remained a research scientist, but became one of them. They trusted him, and he helped heal them.

This true story is an analogy of Jesus Christ. As the Eternal Word of God, He saw that we were sick, He saw that we had become enslaved to sin, to pleasure, and that all of our lives tragically ended in death—something He never meant to happen to us.

He saw that we were separated from Him, and so He became truly human, so that He might reunite human nature to God in His own Person.

Especially in light of the recent survey, it would be helpful to reflect on what the Nicene Creed says about Jesus.

And I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.

It was only by becoming one of us that He could heal us. Only by uniting our human nature to His divine nature could humanity be healed of our sickness of sin and death. By taking on the fullness of our human experience apart from sin (Heb. 4:15), he healed it totally, and restored to our nature that which we were created for: union with God, the opportunity to be totally filled, permeated with His love and grace.

Just as Mr. Walters joined the tribe yet remained a research scientist, so did the pre-eternal Word of God become Man, yet remained God. As it was only by Mr. Walters being both a scientist and becoming a member of the tribe that they could be healed, so was it only by the Word of God being fully God and becoming fully man that we can be healed.

So we return to our original question: What difference does it make if “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” or not?

If Jesus is merely a creature, we have no hope. We cannot be united to God, and so there is no way for our sickness of sin and death to be healed.

But since the Great Physician, “the Great Scientist” came down to earth and united His divine nature with our human nature, it is possible for us to be healed, it is possible for us to be saved. He united human nature to the divine nature in His own Person, making it possible for us to also experience union with God by His grace.

Doing and Loving: The Rich Young Man

On Matthew 19:16-26

St. Matthew’s account of the rich young man is slightly different than the other two Synoptic Evangelists who tell the same story, Mark and Luke. In the latter two, the young man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Yet in Matthew, the conversation begins with a different nuance: the man comes up to Jesus and asks specifically what “good thing” he must do to have eternal life.

Jesus responds by pointing out that his question itself is off-base: what he thinks about good deeds in relation to eternal life needs to be altered. “And He said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good?'” In other words, don’t you know? Is this really what you want to know? “One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17).

“Which ones?” the young man asks.

Jesus responds by listing a number of the Ten Commandments. The rich young man might have shrugged his shoulders, saying, “I’ve done all those since I can remember. What do I still lack?”

Jesus then tells him how he can keep the greatest commandment: that of love for God and neighbor.

“Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”

Matthew 19:21-22.

What Jesus is trying to teach this rich young man is that inheriting eternal life is not so much about what you do, but is more about the state of your heart, that is, does your heart have love in it?

Granted, what you do is still important. If the man had responded to Jesus that he regularly committed murder, adultery, theft, lying, dishonored his parents, and showed lack of love for his neighbor, Jesus might have said something like, “Well, let’s start there and work our way toward good deeds.”

But what ultimately sums up all the commandments, all good deeds, is love for God and love for neighbor. A few chapters later, Jesus identifies the greatest commandment:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40.

Therefore, if the rich young man truly did love his neighbor as himself as he said he did (Matt. 19:19), then selling all he had and giving to the poor wouldn’t have been such a barrier to following Christ.

If the rich young man truly did love God above all—with his heart, soul, mind, and strength—then he would have left all his many possessions to follow God Incarnate.

Maybe the young man was looking for something to justify himself. Who knows how he expected Jesus to respond to his original question? Who knows what was in his heart? But what we can surmise is that his heart was not right toward God. And so when the Word of God Himself told him how He wanted him to fulfill the greatest commandments, “he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (Matt. 19:22).

***

Sometimes we’re so caught up in what we have to do that we lose sight of who God wants us to be. Sometimes we get so caught up in rote actions that we forget why we are to live as Christians in a godless age. And the why we seek is love for God and love for neighbor.

If we don’t have self-sacrificial love that puts God and my neighbor first, period, then there’s no way we can impress God about how great we are, what we’ve done. If we don’t strive after Him with everything we’ve got, then like the rich young man, we will find ourselves far from inheriting eternal life.

The Lord said, “‘On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”‘”

Matthew 7:22-23

Again, St. Paul writes,

“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

1 Corinthians 13:3

So even if the rich young man actually had given all his possessions away, if he didn’t do it from a place of love in his heart for his God and his neighbor in need, he would have gained nothing.

Inheriting eternal life begins now, when we “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). If we only have thoughts for ourselves within our hearts, then how can God and our neighbor live there? How can we begin to experience a foretaste of eternal life now, in our daily lives, when we’ve filled up our lives with only seeking after our needs, our worries, our desires, our possessions?

Just as Jesus sought to change the rich young man’s whole pattern of thinking, so today He seeks to change our pattern of thinking. Yes, keeping God’s commandments is good and right, because He told us to! (John 14:15). But if we would be perfect, then loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength has to be the prism through which we see the world and through which we make our decisions.

And through that prism shines a beam of light that points to our neighbor, whom God has also commanded that we love according to the same degree that He loves us.

Salome and Esther: Two Ways of Discerning Justice

The Beheading of the Holy Glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John

Mark 6:14-30

A young woman suddenly finds herself the judge of another person’s fate. All she has to do is say the words, and that annoying so-called “prophet” loses his head. Just like that. He’s been a headache for her mother, Herodias, who wants him dead, though Herod hasn’t been willing to take that decisive step. The people think he’s a prophet, so it would be bad PR to have him killed. The reason Herodias wanted John dead is because he had called out Herod for marrying her, his brother Philip’s wife, while the poor cuckold was still alive. This was strictly against the Law of Moses, yet Herod and Herodias didn’t care.

Salome’s head is a little muddled—good wine from celebrating Herod’s birthday mixed with dancing wore her out—so she’s tipsy and tired. (We know her name from the historian Josephus.) Herod and his pals liked her dancing so much that he had exclaimed to her,

“‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.’ And he vowed to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom’”

Mark 6:22-23

She had gone to her mother for advice. “What should I ask for?” With a cold smile Herodias had replied, “The head of John the Baptist” (Mark 6:24).

Everyone is looking at her. Should she ask for what her mother suggested? She needs to make a decision. Finally, she acts. “And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’” And when John had been beheaded, they gave Salome his head on a platter, which she gave to her mother (Mark 6:25-28). She buried it in a pile of garbage.

***

Contrast this story with the story of another young woman, who found herself responsible not for the fate of just one man, but of an entire nation—her people, the Jews. Four-hundred-odd years earlier, the daughter of an exiled and humiliated people, Esther had been chosen by the Persian king to be his wife (although he didn’t know she was Jewish). And now, as queen, she had an incredibly important decision to make.

 The king’s advisor, Haman, so hated Esther’s cousin Mordecai that he had talked the king into setting a date in the future in which the entire Jewish population of the Persian Empire would be slaughtered in one day. Mordecai had informed her of these developments, asking her to intercede with the king on behalf of their people, even at the risk of her own death. (Going to the king unbidden was punishable by death, unless he granted you special forgiveness on the spot.) He added, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

“Then Esther told [her messengers] to reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’”

Esther 4:15-16

With faith in God, she had indeed bravely entered the king’s presence, and he had let her live. The king knew she desired something serious. “And the king said to her, ‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom’” (Esther 5:3). Finally, two banquets later, she found herself at the moment of truth.

Everyone is looking at her. Should she ask for what her cousin suggested? She needs to make a decision. Finally, she acts.

“And on the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’ Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.’”

Esther 7:2-4

“Who would do this?” the king asked in astonishment. She responded that it was Haman, who had plotted to have all the Jews killed. The king then ordered Haman to be hung on the gallows that he had had built for Mordecai (Esther 7:6-10).

There are a number of parallels in the stories of these two young women:

  • Salome found favor with King Herod, and Esther found favor with King Xerxes.
  • Both scenes took place at banquets.
  • Both women were offered up to half of the kingdom.
  • Both held the life of someone else in their grasp.
  • Both had asked a family member for advice.
  • Both made a decision that revealed their conception of justice.

Yet, where Salome had been occupied with partying, dancing, and drinking, Esther had been occupied with prayer and fasting.

Where Salome took the advice of someone who was living in open defiance of God’s commandments, Esther took the advice of someone who was faithful, humble, and acted according to God’s commandments.

Where Salome’s sense of justice was perverted, in going along with her mother’s urgings to have a righteous man killed, Esther’s sense of justice was upright, as she did not tell the king to have Haman killed, only that he was the mastermind of her people’s destruction.

***

What we can learn from comparing Salome and Esther is how to navigate matters of justice, punishment, and morality in a time when our culture is pulling us every direction. There are Herodias’s in our culture who urge, incite, and induce us to condemn others, to go for blood; and there are Mordecai’s in our culture who remind us of the great responsibility we have as the Church, the collective Bride of Christ, to fight for justice, for what is right and true, to defend the the defenseless, to have the courage to call out blatant immorality as self-destructive.

Yet if we haven’t calibrated our own inner sense of justice then we will be unable to discern which voices in our culture or in our families to listen to.

Salome mis-calibrated her inner sense of justice by partying and leading men to frenzied lust. She also willingly took the advice of someone she knew to be contrary to God’s will.

Esther calibrated her inner sense of justice by praying and fasting for three days and three nights. Likewise, she took the advice of someone she knew to be righteous, and by doing so she allowed her way of seeing the world to be shaped by her cousin, who for us represents our spiritual family, the Holy Orthodox Church.

Because Esther opened her life to God’s will by praying and fasting, she was able to discern that her cousin Mordecai’s advice was good, that God had put her in that royal position so that she could intercede on her nation’s behalf before the king. She did not seek Haman’s execution, but pointed out that what he had planned was wicked.

Because Salome closed her life to God’s will by pursuing pleasure to an excess, she was unable to discern that her mother’s advice was wicked, that in asking for John’s head on a platter she was commanding the death of a righteous man.

And in the end, Esther’s actions were vindicated: she did not merely receive half of the Persian Empire, but received the heavenly kingdom of Christ the King of kings.

Salome’s actions conversely brought her punishment, when, according to tradition, she was beheaded by falling through the sharp ice of a river. “The ice gave way in such a way that her body was in the water, but her head was trapped above the ice. It was similar to how she once had danced with her feet upon the ground, but now she flailed helplessly in the icy water.” As we navigate such a polarized, angry, even bloodthirsty culture, which is often less concerned with true justice than with money, sex, and power, may we emulate Esther’s righteous actions by calibrating our lives to God’s will through prayer and fasting, and allowing the way we see the world to be shaped by the teachings of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Faith and Confession: A Homily for July 12, 2020

Imagine you’re growing a vegetable in a garden, such as a broccoli plant. If it’s hot out, it needs enough water to survive.

Let’s say that it’s getting just the right amount of water. Then if all is well, it will produce broccoli heads, which you can roast with garlic or do whatever you like with them. It produces food for you, that’s the main thing.

Now, let’s say that you’re providing the plant everything it needs, except you’re a bit spotty on watering. What’s going to happen? The plant is wilty and will not produce a broccoli head. Eventually you’ll decide to pull up the plant—what good is it taking up space in my garden when I can plant something else there that will actually produce vegetables for me?

This situation illustrates what St. Paul is explaining to the Christians in Rome in today’s Epistle reading.

“…If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Such faith of the heart leads to uprightness; such profession of the lips to salvation” (Rom. 10:9-10).

Regarding our hypothetical broccoli plant, water represents faith, faith that runs deep to the roots of our being and fills our heart, the center of our convictions, the very core of our person.

St. Paul affirms that there is one path to salvation: belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ with all your “heart, soul, mind, and strength.” There is one way to like an upright, holy life: through faith that penetrates into our deepest convictions.

The broccoli head represents the public confession of our faith, that “Jesus is Lord”—that is, that He is truly God, the Son of God, “begotten, not made, by Whom all things were made.” As a vegetable grows by receiving enough water, so does our public confession of Jesus Christ grow by having faith in His resurrection.

When we truly believe in Christ’s resurrection with all our being, then that produces fruit in our lives—we then live the faith, and Christ’s resurrection shines through our words and actions.

When we have faith in the resurrection of Christ and confesses this faith, we trust in God’s mercy that we will be saved. As St. Paul affirms,

“Such faith of the heart leads to uprightness; such profession of the lips to salvation.”

But what does it really look like to believe in Christ’s resurrection? What does confessing Him with our lips really look like?

What does this look like as I do my work, raise the kids, go to an exercise class, chat with a neighbor, take care of an aging parent? How might we describe faith and confession in the context of everyday life?

***

Let’s return for a moment to our hypothetical broccoli plant. If it gets the right amount of water, with everything else it needs, then it will produce broccoli heads.

Let’s say that I watered the plant from above for maybe a few seconds. Maybe I was more thorough, and the water soaked the ground below, giving the roots plenty of moisture. But then I left it alone and didn’t water it for a few weeks. What do you think would happen?

It would shrivel up and die.

And so it goes with faith in Christ’s resurrection. If I recite the Nicene Creed once a week, but fail to live as though Christ is actually risen from the dead, then do I really have faith in His resurrection?

An early Church Father wisely puts it this way:

“What would it profit me to know and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? If I should not have Him raised within myself, if I neither ‘walk in newness of life’ [Rom. 6:4] nor flee from the old habit of sinning, Christ has not yet resurrected from the dead to me.”

Powerful words. If I continue to live according to my fallen human nature, according to my bad habits, my passions, then Christ is not actually risen from the dead to me. I live as if there was no resurrection, being content to live according to my habitual sins.

Then I would live contrary to my baptism, in which I died with Christ and was raised with Him so that I could “walk in newness of life.”

If I continue to dwell on lustful thoughts at the park, feelings of resentment at work, continued anger at my spouse or children, lashing out at others in my thoughts or words, then I have not died to the “old man,” my fallen human nature.

This would be like watering the plant once on the leaves, for a few seconds. The water doesn’t have a chance to get to the roots, and so it bears no fruit. If our faith in Christ doesn’t reach down to our hearts and stay there, then we spiritually shrivel up and bear no fruit.

If I don’t “walk in newness of life” nor flee from the old habit of sinning, then I cannot expect that a one-time belief in Christ’s resurrection will lead to living an upright, truly Christian life.

***

Likewise, if I say one time, “Jesus is Lord,” but then live as if I am Lord, as if I am my own highest power, then can I really say that that profession of faith will save me? Wouldn’t it be an empty utterance, words with no weight?

Confessing Jesus as Lord means asking Him to be the Lord and Master of my life not only now, not in one moment, but later today, tomorrow, when I take my kids to the park, when I spend time with family, when I go to the grocery store, when I just can’t handle that one person anymore, when I’m alone in my room.

Confessing Jesus as Lord means not only making the verbal statement that He is Lord, as we do during the Nicene Creed or in the Jesus Prayer, but means speaking this truth through the entirety of our lives—through all our words, thoughts, and actions.

“Such profession of the lips [leads] to salvation” when all my actions are aligned with my verbal profession of faith.

For Jesus does not say that we are saved by faith alone; He declares that at the Last Judgment, “The Son of Man shall come in the glory of His Father with the angels; and then He shall render to every man according to his works” (Matt. 16:27).

And as St. John writes in Revelation, “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books” (Rev. 20:12).

So if I’m going to say “Jesus is Lord,” I have to back it up with my life, I have to live according to Christ’s Gospel commandments.

Jesus says, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Some of them? No. All of them? Yes. That’s how we show that we truly believe that He is our Resurrected Lord.

So confessing Jesus as Lord means not only making a verbal profession of our Orthodox Christian faith, but it means living according to that faith, acting, thinking, speaking, doing that which is according to the way of life that Jesus Christ commanded us to live.

***

This is a continuous process. You water the plant, but then again, and again, and again. You pick the broccoli head, then again and again. When it receives water and everything else it needs, it produces food for you.

“Such faith of the heart leads to uprightness; such profession of the lips to salvation.”

This is a continuous process, as the Greek in this verse suggests. Belief in the resurrection is something we continue to grow in—we ask God to “increase our faith” as the Apostles did (Luke 17:5).

Likewise, confessing Jesus as Lord of our lives is also something we grow in—we ask God to permeate our lives, all our thoughts and actions. For God knows the heart, He knows if I truly believe that He is Lord or if deep I operate as if I believe that I am Lord.

Salvation is therefore not a one-time event, but is a continuous process that lasts our entire lives, and even after our lives. Our spiritual growth begins in this life with our profession of faith in Christ’s resurrection and our confession of Jesus as Lord, but then continues throughout all the challenges and joys that life brings, through all our spiritual failures and victories, at the gas station, at home, at the park, in our exercise class, at work, whatever we are doing and whoever we are interacting with.

All of these situations are opportunities for us to live according to our faith that Christ is truly risen from the dead, and not only objectively, but in me, that He has raised me from death to “newness of life.”

And then, all of these situations, all of our lives become a proclamation of Jesus’ Lordship; then, all of our lives are opportunities to bear spiritual fruit, to grow in uprightness, in righteous living, doing good works as a sign of my faith, even as a broccoli plant produces food by having enough water.

May the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit grant us this “faith of the heart [that] leads to uprightness” and this “profession of the lips [that leads] to salvation,” today and all the days of our lives. Amen.

The Persian Sage on Prayer

It is not uncommon to find apparent contradictions in the writings of the Church Fathers. Sometimes their words may seem paradoxical, with the appearance of simultaneously asserting two contradictory positions. If this was unintentional in other writers, I have a hunch that St. Aphrahat the Persian Sage reveled in the tension of paradox, much like his younger contemporary, St. Ephrem.

As we last discussed the Persian Sage’s perspectives on fasting, and there being several days of the Apostles’ Fast left, today we will look at what he has to say about prayer. His Demonstration on prayer follows the one on fasting, and the two themes, with almsgiving/works of mercy, constitute the three major spiritual disciplines during fasting seasons in the Orthodox Church.

St. Aphrahat seems to support two apparently contradictory assertions about prayer: first, that it is found in silence, inaction; second, that it is found in deeds, action. Whatever tension that exists between the two modes of prayer is certainly not an issue for him, as he makes no effort to release this tension by giving an extended explanation. He just lets the tension exist and assumes his reader can sort it out.

To begin his Demonstration on prayer, St. Aphrahat says,

“Purity of heart is a prayer more excellent than all prayers uttered in a loud voice, and silence, combined with a pure mind, surpasses the loud voice of the person who cries out.”

Demonstration 4: On Prayer (4.1; Lehto translation)

As is his way, he provides a whole slew of Scriptural examples, beginning with Abel, all the way up to Daniel: the whole course of the Old Testament. His point is to show “how prayer was for them a pure offering.”

Now what is curious is that in all his examples, the Biblical characters do not actually, on first appearance, exemplify his assertion at the beginning of his Demonstration that pure prayer is primarily through silence, quiet, an inward purity of heart. Rather, he shows that pure prayer is linked to action: the sacrifices of Abel, Manoah, Abraham, Solomon, Elijah: the miracles that came about through the prayers of Moses, Hannah, Asa, Hezekiah, Jonah, the Three Holy Youths, and Daniel. Finally he writes, “Each of our righteous fathers, at the time when tribulation came upon him, put on the armor of prayer, and through it was delivered from tribulation” (4.9).

So at this point of his Demonstration, St. Aphrahat seems to have joined “action” to “silence” in his portrayal of pure prayer. Prayer is therefore not only an interior dialogue with God, but is manifest in the actions of those who love God, and particularly in those who call on Him in their hour of greatest need, in faith. Their actions were borne out of purity of heart, which to St. Aphrahat, is prayer.

St. Aphrahat then returns to his first theme—prayer as an interior, silent, mystical experience:

“Why, my friend, did our Savior teach and say, ‘Pray to your Father in secret while the door is closed’?… This is what the word of our Savior shows us: pray in secret in your heart, and close the door. What door did he say to close, if not your mouth? For this is the temple in which Christ dwells, as the Apostle says, ‘You are the temple of the Lord,’ so that he might enter into your inner man, this house, and purify it from every impurity, while the door (the mouth) is closed.”

Demonstration 4.10

Naturally, he explains, the Savior’s injunction has nothing to do with a literal door, or else those out in the country or on a mountain wouldn’t be able to pray, there being no door there. Rather, he explains, prayer is an interior indwelling of God’s very Presence.

Reflecting on the Lord’s words, “At the place where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there among them,” he continues,

“When a person gathers his soul in the name of Christ, Christ lives in him, and God lives in Christ. Thus, he becomes one of the three persons: himself, Christ who lives in him, and God who lives in Christ, as our Lord said: ‘I am in my Father and my Father is in me.’ And He said, ‘I and my Father are one.’ And again He said, ‘You are in me and I am in you.’ Again, He said through the prophet, ‘I will live in them and I will walk with them.’ It is in this way that you can understand this word which our Life-Giver spoke.”

Demonstration 4.11

Again, for the Persian Sage, prayer is a secret, inner reality. “As I have explained to you above, when you pray, direct your heart upward, and your eyes downward, and enter into the midst of your inner person, and pray in secret to your Father in heaven” (4.13).

Pause. In the Post-Enlightenment West, we might be concerned and confused that St. Aphrahat is holding to several definitions or illustrations of prayer that might at first glance seem mutually-exclusive: prayer is silence, yet prayer is action, borne out of purity of heart: prayer is sacrifice, yet prayer is a divine indwelling.

Yet he joyfully exclaims that prayer is all these things. As another Orthodox saint once succinctly said, “Prayer is God.” Prayer defies simple explanations, which is why he revels in the tension between action and contemplation.

Prayer is all these things. For St. Aphrahat, it seems that nearly anything in the Bible that reflects love for God and faith in Him can be identified as prayer. His ever-expanding definition of prayer finds another facet in a comment he gives on Isaiah 28:12, “This is My rest: give rest to the weary.” He writes, “give rest to the weary, visit the sick, and provide for the poor: this is prayer. I will persuade you, my friend, that whenever a person brings about the rest of God, it is prayer” (4.14).

“Whenever a person brings about the rest of God, it is prayer.” How dearly our broken world needs this rest of God! How dearly our broken world needs people of prayer!

For St. Aphrahat, prayer comprises the entirety of the Christian life. Prayer is entering into the secret place in the heart, yet prayer is also keeping the commandment of love in action. Ultimately, prayer is doing God’s will, in whichever circumstances we find ourselves in, like the multitude of the righteous fathers and mothers in the Old Covenant.

“Prayer is accepted when it provides rest, and heard when forgiveness is found in it. Prayer is cherished when it is free from all deceptions, and powerful when it is perfected by the might of God. I have written to you, my friend, that a person should do the will of God, and that this is prayer.”

Demonstration 4.16

In these strange times, when it seems as though Satan’s primary weapons against the Church have been division, a weakening of zeal, despair, lack of concern for one’s salvation, and most importantly, a disruption of the Church’s cycle of prayer, it is imperative to our spiritual survival to keep St. Aphrahat’s exhortation to diligence in prayer in the entirety of our lives. As the Persian Sage has shown, prayer can be anything, as long as it is according to the will of God.

“Be vigilant by day and by night,” he lovingly writes, “and do not become discouraged” (4.16).

The Persian Sage on Fasting

In my last post, An Introduction to Fasting, I presented the basics of fasting from an Orthodox Christian perspective. Fasting is a tool we have in our spiritual toolbox to teach us to say “no” to ourselves.

And yet, as St. Aphrahat the Persian Sage notes, “There are many ways to undertake a fast.” In this reflection, we will examine what this vastly under-appreciated saint has to say about fasting.

St. Aphrahat lived in the Persian Empire in the fourth century, which explains his fantastic appellation, “the Persian Sage.” His lack of popularity in the Orthodox Church certainly does not reflect the quality of his writings, as his twenty-three Demonstrations show a grasp of the Bible and Christian teaching as masterful as any Greek or Latin Father. The fault for his absence from the canon of Patristic writings is rather due to his language and location: writing in Syriac (Aramaic) in the Persian Empire, his works did not easily find their way through the Greek-speaking, Eastern Roman Empire, and have only recently been fully translated into English. (Eight of his Demonstrations in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series may be found here.)

At any rate, back to what St. Aphrahat has to say about fasting. “There are many ways to undertake a fast.” Apart from abstinence from meat, wine, certain foods, and what seems to be hint at sexual abstinence, he continues,

“There is also one who fasts by building a fence around his mouth, so as to avoid speaking hateful words, and there is one who abstains from anger, who crushes his desire [to get angry] so that he might not be conquered [by it].”

Demonstration 3: On Fasting (3.1), Lehto translation

This gets to the main purpose of fasting as found in the Byzantine hymnography for Great Lent: that we not consume our brother, that we abstain from sin. This, for St. Aphrahat, is a true fast—the combination of bodily fasting and abstinence from sin. “And [finally], there is the one who brings together all of these practices and makes them one fast.”

What do we gain if we abstain from eating meat but consume our brother with angry words? What benefit is it to us if we forego eating cheese and dairy but lash out in anger at others?

During this fasting season we would do well to take to heart St. Aphrahat’s encouragement to keep the fast not only in a physical way, but in a higher, spiritual way as well, especially as regards the words we speak:

“If, indeed, a person abstains from bread and water, let him not mix insults and curses with his fast. For there is only one door to your house, which is the temple of God, and it is not appropriate, O human, that manure and mud should leave by this door through which the king enters. For when a person fasts from all these vile things, and receives the body and blood of Christ, let him keep watch over his mouth, through which the Son of the King enters.”

Demonstration 3: On Fasting (3.2)

In St. Aphrahat’s view, pure fasting is therefore much more comprehensive than simply what we eat and drink: it is fasting with the totality of our being—body, soul, and spirit—to “[bring] together all of these practices and [make] them one fast.” What we eat, think, feel, say, and do, should all be vetted by the person who desires to practice pure fasting.

According to St. Aphrahat, pure fasting, true fasting, is not only from food and water, but also requires fasting from sin with purity of heart, repentance, faith, commitment to prayer, and keeping the Law of love (love God, love others, period).

It is this understanding of fasting that should be the lens through which we conceive of and interact with other people during these strange and highly challenging times, during which falls the Apostles’ Fast. We “mix insults and curses” with our fast when we deride those whom we disagree with. We defile the Temple of the Living God with fresh, steaming manure when we go from receiving the Holy Eucharist to speaking or thinking evil of others. Our fast is to be a comprehensive fast: not only from food and drink, but also from sin, lest we be conquered by our passions.

Our model of fasting, as St. Aphrahat reminds us at the close of his third Demonstration, should be that of Our Lord in the wilderness: we will encounter temptations, we can feel like we’re being clobbered by demons, the temptation to speak evil of others may be overwhelming, yet the Godman Jesus Christ shows us that through pure fasting we also can be victorious over sin.

“…Our Lifegiver, our Lord Jesus Christ… has suffered, and has been tempted in the flesh which he has received from us, and can therefore assist those who are tempted. For he fasted on our behalf, and has conquered our Enemy. He has commanded us to fast and to keep watch at all times, so that by the power of pure fasting, we might attain his rest.”

Demonstration 3: On Fasting (3.16)

An Introduction to Fasting

From the earliest days of the Church, fasting has been an integral part of Christian spiritual discipline. The Didache, an early Christian catechetical document (1st/2nd century AD), explains that while the Jews fast on Monday and Thursday (referring to them as “the hypocrites” of Matt. 6:16), the Christians instead fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.

This should not be surprising for Orthodox Christians, as this practice of weekly fasting has continued down to the present day: every Wednesday and Friday, apart from non-fasting periods, Orthodox Christians should strive to keep a vegan fast as they are able.

In addition, certain periods of fasting have developed over the centuries of Christian life to prepare us for certain feasts; thus, we keep a forty-day fast in preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas), a forty-day fast (plus Holy Week) in preparation for Great and Holy Pascha (Easter), a fast of varying length in preparation for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), and a two-week fast in preparation for the Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15).

These fasts are mostly aimed at limiting the kinds and amount of food eaten. There are only a handful of days in the Church year in which we are encouraged to keep a strict fast, eating and drinking absolutely nothing. For the rest of the fasting days, whether on Wednesdays and Fridays or during fasting seasons, Orthodox Christians are encouraged to 1) keep a vegan fast, 2) limit the amount of food we eat, and 3) keep our food simple and inexpensive, so as to have more money on hand to give to those in need.

And although we’re eating some food during these fasting seasons, these fasts can be very difficult to keep as the days and weeks go on. It’s easy to get bogged down, to slip up, even to give up. It can become difficult to see the purpose of our efforts.

Lest we view fasting as a meaningless “requirement,” an arbitrary box to tick off because the Church said so, or even a practice that only serves to bolster self-righteousness, we should remember that fasting is itself a tool, an item in our spiritual toolbox to help keep us from sin.

If fasting is a tool, what is its purpose? Jackhammers break up concrete and screwdrivers drive a screw into something. They have a purpose.

The purpose of fasting is to practice denying ourselves, to learn to say “no” to ourselves. It might not seem like a big deal, saying no to a snack in the mid-afternoon of a fasting day, or choosing to make mujadara (one of my favorites) instead of grilling burgers; but practicing saying “no” to ourselves exercises our “no” muscle for other situations: when we want to talk behind someone’s back, when we are tempted by something on the internet, when we want to lash out at someone in anger. The more we work that “no” muscle in fasting, the stronger we will be against temptations, with God’s strength.

This brings us to an important point: fasting isn’t just about self-denial—it’s about self-denial while seeking the Lord’s strength. If we can rely on the Lord’s strength to help us when we’re hungry, or when we want ice cream, then we’ll be better suited, more accustomed to seek His strength when temptations present themselves. Because they will.

As we begin this Apostles Fast, leading us to the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on the 29th, may we exercise this muscle of self-denial, seeking God’s strength to say “no” to ourselves. Then, may Our Lord Jesus Christ protect us from every temptation that comes our way.

Come, O faithful!
With great fervor, having the mighty weapon of the fast as a shield,
Let us turn away all charms of the Enemy.
Let us not be scorched by the sweetness of our passions,
Nor fear the fires of temptations,
For Christ the lover of mankind will crown us with honor for patience.
Let us fall down, praying with boldness, and crying out:
Asking peace for our souls and great mercy.

From Monday Vespers in the first week of Great Lent

Suggested reading: Matthew 4:1-3, 6:16-18, 17:14-21; Luke 5:33-39; 18:9-14; 1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Image: “Christ in the Desert,” Ivan Kramskoi, 1872

Ascending the Beatitudes with Martynov and Nyssa

A lilting melody of only five notes rises and falls, swells and relents, until at last it begins all over again. Sublimity in simplicity. Yet in each successive verse, the other voices transition from harmonizing droning notes, gradually, to lofty, glorious, shifting chords, yet each chord only serves to accentuate the beauty of the melody. As the lilting melody progresses into the final verse, the music takes a new melodic turn, revealing the direction toward which the whole piece has been moving; the soloist repeats “in heaven” ad libitum, leading the listener toward eternal and unchanging blessedness.

Such is my attempt to describe Vladimir Martynov‘s (b. 1946) choral setting of the Beatitudes, which one critic aptly described as being “tortured by beauty.” (Martynov also composed the score for “The Island,” the gripping story of a wonder-working Orthodox monk’s life of repentance.)

The simplicity of Martynov’s setting, as one repetition of the musical phrase swells into the next, suggests a linear, ascending interpretation of the Beatitudes, whereby one virtue leads to the next, in an ascent to loftier and more glorious blessedness, finally leading heavenward. (I have H. Paul Finley to thank for first bringing this interpretation to my attention.)

This is precisely how St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. c. 394) understands the progression of the Beatitudes:

When one climbs up by a ladder he sets foot on the first step, and from there goes on to the one above. Again the second step carries the climber up to the third, and this one following, and hence to the next. Thus the person who goes up always ascends from where he is to the step above until he reaches the top of his ascent…. It seems to me that the Beatitudes are arranged in order like so many steps, so as to facilitate the ascent from one to the other. 

The Beatitudes, Sermon 2

In the minds of both Martynov and St. Gregory, the Beatitudes are presented a ladder of divine ascent, as each rung builds on the last, describes another facet or characteristic of blessedness, and leads to the next verse, up and up, leading finally toward the end goal of the ascent: eternal life in heaven. There the righteous enjoy the reward of all their struggles, eternal union and communion with God, the Source of blessedness.

And insofar as the Christian has entered into mystical, unending union with God, to such a degree does he participate in God’s own unchanging, eternal, and infinite beatitude. For as St. Gregory explains, 

Now the one thing truly blessed is the Divinity Itself. Whatever else we may suppose It to be, this pure life, the ineffable and incomprehensible good, is beatitude. It is beatitude, this inexpressible beauty which is very grace, wisdom, and power; this true light that is the fount of all goodness, mighty above all else; the one thing lovable which is always the same, rejoicing without end in infinite happiness. 

The Beatitudes, Sermon 1

At the outset of Martynov’s setting of the Beatitudes, from within the silence, the lilting melody reflects Jesus Christ’s own beatitude, His own blessedness, being the pre-eternal God and the Son and Word of God. We hear the same voice that once said, “Let there be…” now singing to us atop a grassy hill how we might share in His own divine, unending blessedness.

And as the verses of His song progress, new voices are created out of nothing. They also are invited to join in the music, having a spark of their Creator, the Great Composer, within their hearts. As the new voices ascend the ladder of blessedness, their own creative potential is released, creating a soaring harmony with the pre-eternal melody. As the harmony of their wills and voices with the Composer’s will and voice grows more and more complex, and yet, even more simple, they are brought into union with Him Who is Himself the very definition and Source of blessedness. 

The overpowering, “tortuous” beauty of the song subsists in this very harmony of wills, minds, and hearts, being the product and result of the image of the Great Composer shining through His co-singers. As St. Gregory teaches (no doubt by his own experience), it is by virtue of the image of God in us that we may likewise have a part in God’s own blessedness: 

But as He who fashioned man made him in the image of God; in a derived sense that which is called by this name should also be held blessed, inasmuch as he participates in true beatitude. For as in the matter of physical beauty the original comeliness is in the actually living face, whereas the second place is held by its reflection shown in a picture; so also human nature, which is the image of the transcendent beatitude, is itself marked by the beauty of goodness, when it reflects in itself the blessed features.

The Beatitudes, Sermon 1

Therefore, when the Lord Jesus says, “Blessed are…,” He is speaking of His own blessedness, His own meekness, purity, righteousness, etc., as it is reflected in the lives of His disciples: then the “beauty of [God’s] goodness” shines in and through their lives, as a mirror reflects the noonday sun.

And yet, every single human being has a portion of this blessedness within them innately. When God made man in His image and likeness, He breathed a portion of this very “eternal blessedness” into human nature—that is, a “divine spark” as St. Arseny calls it (d. 1975), or a “divine part,” as St. Gregory the Theologian calls it.

The Word of God taking a portion of the newly created earth, has with his own immortal hands fashioned our frame, and imparted life to it; since the spirit which he breathed into it, is an effluence of the invisible Divinity.… That is why being but dust, I am bound to the life here below; having also a divine part I carry in my breast the longing for eternal life.

Dogmatic Poems 8, “On the Soul”

This longing for eternal life is a yearning for a greater share of God’s grace, a further participation in His uncreated energies, a further experience of blessedness in this life and in the world to come.

As we ascend this ladder of blessedness, we find that God Himself is our reward, He Himself is Heaven, He is prayer, He is everything. To this effect St. Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on 1 Corinthians 9:24, asks,

What is it that we shall obtain? What is the prize, what the crown? It seems to me that what we hope is nothing else but the Lord Himself. For He Himself is the Judge of those who fight, and the crown of those who win. He it is who distributes the inheritance, He Himself is the goodly inheritance. He is the portion and the giver of the portion, He makes rich and is Himself the riches. He shows you the treasure and is Himself your treasure.

The Beatitudes, Sermon 8

As all fades, a single voice repeats that which the lover of God yearns for, longs for—that which she has labored for while ascending the Beatitudes: to gain her eternal reward in Heaven, which is God Himself, the Source of blessedness.

An instrumental version no less sublime