Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Before you fast

August 1st marks the start of a fasting period in the Orthodox Church. This is commonly called the Dormition Fast, because it spans the two weeks (Aug. 1-14) leading up to the feast of the Dormition on August 15th. The Dormition celebrates the earthly death of Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and her reception into heaven. Although the details of the event as preserved in church writings cannot possibly be taken as historical facts, the spiritual meaning of the feast is really what is important. I will have occasion to discuss the meaning of the feast in the coming two weeks. The icon of the Dormition, Κοίμησις της Θεοτόκου, is rich with theology and spirituality:

Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos

Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos (click to enlarge)

In a powerful inversion of the Nativity (Christmas) icon, here Christ is shown in glory receiving the eternal spirit of his Mother in the form of a newborn babe. I will have more to say about this extraordinary iconographic tradition in a later post.

Close-up of a Dormition icon, showing Christ receiving the eternal spirit of his Mother as a new-born infant.

Close-up of a Dormition icon, showing Christ receiving the eternal spirit of his Mother as a new-born infant (click to enlarge)

The Dormition is the Pascha of our Lady. And just like the Pascha of Christ is preceded by a long fasting period – Great Lent and Holy Week – likewise the Pascha of the Lord’s Mother is preceded by a fasting period, August 1-14. Whereas the fast preceding Pascha is seven weeks total, the fast preceding the Dormition is only two weeks long. But it is just as strict as the Lenten fast! This means: no meat, no dairy, no fish, no alcohol, etc. There are several resources on the Web that discuss the history, rules and principles of fasting, including the following pages on the Archdiocese website:

Faith and Life brochure on Fasting

Fasting from Iniquities and Foods

The rules of fasting, especially for Lent and the Dormition fast, are so severe that very few people observe them. Various compromises are made by Orthodox people and the clergy who advise them. One is justified in asking: Why not modify the rules so they can be more realistic? Indeed, why not? Because almost everyone in the Orthodox Church is afraid of upsetting the monks and the few traditionalists out there. Also, there is a feigned fear of changing anything that the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils set forth. That is unfortunate. As a result, we don’t change the written rules, but change and even ignore them in everyday practice!

Another problem is our exclusive focus on fasting as a spiritual tool and a practice to accompany repentance. It is, of course, all that, and the spiritual benefits of fasting are beautifully expressed in the two links given above. But isn’t this focus on spiritual benefits a bit self-centered? Are we missing something bigger about fasting? Consider the following passage from Isaiah, chapter 58. God is speaking here:

Shout out, do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.

God’s ideas about fasting seem quite different from our own. God seems to care more whether our fasting leads to awareness of what’s around us and how we relate to others. God’s priorities are clearly different from the priorities of monks. So, before you fast, read again these words from Isaiah and contemplate how fasting can help you become more actively involved in the lives of others and how you can contribute to improving your little corner of the world.

Don’t worry about following rules that are too hard for you to observe. Let your fasting from food be sincere. Let your fasting be guided by a love of creation and a concern to eat food that is simple and free of harmful pesticides and additives and destructive farming practices. Let these concerns lead you on a search how to make your eating be in greater harmony with God’s concern for all life. You can make your fasting immensely meaningful by learning how food comes to your local supermarket and dining table. And August is the perfect month to support your local farmers market. Yes, it costs more to buy from farmers, but at least you know where your dollar is going and who is benefiting from it. If it costs a little more than what you buy at the supermarket, it might make you more cognizant about what and how much you eat. And that too, is part of the spiritual benefit of fasting. Anything you learn along these lines will elevate your fasting to what God wants it to be.

Before you fast, read Isaiah 58 and think deeply about it. May God bless your Dormition fast and your growth in godly awareness.


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The Ark of Survival

Today, July 22, the Orthodox Church celebrated the feast-day of St. Mary Magdalene. Despite the fact that women have been treated as second- or third-class citizens throughout the history of the church, this particular saint bears the eponymic of “Equal to the Apostles.” And, of course, that’s exactly what she should be called! Peter, Paul, James, John – any of the “apostles” – are in no wise superior to Mary Magdalen. She has even been called “Apostle to the Apostles,” because she bore the message of Christ’s resurrection to the apostles who were hiding in fear (John 20:1-2 & 20:18).

Mary Magdalene greets the risen Christ in the garden

Mary Magdalene greets the risen Christ in the garden

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There is another female saint celebrated in today’s Orthodox calendar: Saint Markella, “the Virgin-Martyr of Chios.” Here is my question: Why does a woman have to be a reformed sinful woman (as Mary Magdalene is presumed by the church to have been, as Mary of Egypt was), or a virgin-martyr, or a nun, or (in some cases) a widow, in order to be canonized? Why are there so few married women (and men, for that matter) who have been raised to the state of sainthood? Not, of course, that God is bound by decisions of the church as to who is a saint and who isn’t – but it is a question that should be asked. Why has so much preference been given to men and women who were not married?

The question is worth asking because the Orthodox Church has so few examples of holy families to offer to a society where the family is calamitously on the brink of extinction. I was watching tonight on YouTube a program first telecast on Greek television in October of 2013. The entire program was dedicated to the music of Mikis Theodorakis – who, in my opinion, is not only the greatest composer of Greek popular music, but the greatest song writer of the 20th century, and beyond, of any nationality! He is an old man now, but he was there for this intimate celebration of his music. You can watch the video here: Στην Υγειά μας. Αφιέρωμα στον Μικη Θεοδωράκη.

At about 21 minutes into the program Theodorakis and the host are talking about the continuing popularity of his music. The host calls the music an εργαλείο, a tool for the preservation of Greek culture and society, especially in the difficult times people are facing now. At 21:45 into the video, Theodorakis says something very profound. He says that the ark (κιβωτός) of survival in Greece is the family. It is the family that preserves the traditions, the culture, the music. I can relate. Growing up in a Greek home in Montreal, Canada, all I heard at home was Greek popular music. And I resented it. I resented hearing the same songs about hard work, poverty and emigrating to foreign lands. Despite the fact that I too was an immigrant and that I too was born poor in Greece and was still relatively poor even in Canada, I couldn’t take these songs. So I escaped to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other denizens of Anglo-American pop. But the Greek music was always there in the home. It was part of me no matter how much I tried to deny it. So later, in the late 60’s and early 1970’s as my own political and cultural awareness developed, I found these songs that I had previously resented to be far more beautiful, more meaningful, and far more stirring to my soul than any of the rock and pop songs that I had been listening to.

The family environment was the key that kept me rooted. If I can speak and write Greek today and if I can drive around Portland listening to Mikis Theodorakis or Manos Hadjidhakis in my car (when I’m not listening to Wagner), it’s because of my family home. And I treasure my upbringing, despite the many hardships we endured. The family still is the cornerstone of Greek society, and it is still strong – though it’s beginning to face the same challenges as the European and North American family.

The family structure is crumbling, and we see the results all around us: lower educational standards, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, alienation, irresponsible sexual activity, violent behavior, guns in the possession and use of minors, disrespect for elders and social standards – and an alarming estrangement from anything religious. No, families are not crumbling because of gays! And no, families are not crumbling because women are working. Women are working because the society requires it and the consumer obsession demands it. Don’t look for scapegoats and who to blame for what is happening to families in our country. Look inside the family and ask what is going on.

What values are being preserved and passed on within the family home? What are the children hearing and seeing within the home? Is there a culture within the home that children are being exposed to when they come off their iPods or video games or social media? Or are the parents also hooked to their own iPods, TV sets and social media? Is there a unifying culture within the home? Does the family even eat together? Is there conversation around the table? Does the family go to church on Sunday morning? Or is team sport the only activity that brings the family together? Good luck with that.

Thank God we have many families in our community that are valiantly swimming against the tide. I pray that the Lord will support these families in their efforts and give them the courage to cultivate unity of heart and mind in their homes. We Orthodox are committed to family values. Perhaps the day will come when the Church will work off its preference for monks and nuns and also recognize the sainthood of parents who raise faithful children. Perhaps some of our own hard-working, faithful parents will be saints – if not in the official calendar of saints, then in the infinitely more important list of saints in the mind of God. May it be so! Let’s honor families. They are indeed the Ark of Survival in our confused and directionless times. God bless the families of our community and families around the world. In Greece too!


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A Prophet like Jesus, Part 2

As Elijah flees from Jezebel, he enters a landscape where God was a familiar presence. God’s preferred hangouts were mountains and deserts. So Elijah flees to the desert again.

Elijah flees from Jezebel to the desert

Elijah flees from Jezebel to the desert

This time instead of ravens it’s an angel of the Lord who brings him food and drink. But this was not enough for Elijah; he needed something more to set him right after the momentous showdown with the prophets of Baal. So he goes further into desolate spaces; he travels forty days and forty nights and reaches Mount Horeb. What happens next is best quoted directly from the First Book of Kings 19:8-18.

He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Mount Horeb was the mountain on which Moses received the laws from God. Some parts of the Hebrew scriptures call it Mount Sinai; elsewhere it’s called Mount Horeb. Some scholars think it was in what today is called Sinai Peninsula; others think it was across the Gulf of Aqaba in what today is the Arabian Peninsula – its exact location is uncertain.

Mount Horeb?

Mount Horeb?

So Elijah flees to the mountain where God had appeared to Moses. Was he hoping that God would appear to him also? He was not disappointed. God speaks to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I love it when God asks questions like this, as when he asked Adam in the Garden, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) And just as Adam immediately began making excuses and casting blame elsewhere (in his case, Eve), so here Elijah does what most men of God seem to do: he starts complaining. Look at what I’ve done for you, God, while everyone else has forsaken you and broken the covenant. I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to kill me!

God will answer Elijah’s lament that he is the only one left who is faithful to God. But first God is going to “pass by.” What follows is a powerful echo of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:12-23. And just as Elijah has experienced the trauma of facing Israel’s defection to Baal, so Moses had just experienced the people’s worship of the Golden Calf. Similar psychological situations; similar responses by God. Moses requested a favor from God; he wanted to see the glory of God. It was not possible. All God could do was to shield Moses in a cave and allow him only to experience the tail-end of God’s passing by; anything more would have destroyed Moses. So here with Elijah:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

God was not in the wind; God was not in the earthquake; not in the fire. But God was in the sound of a whisper, in the silence.

Elijah wraps his face after the whisper of God's presence

Elijah wraps his face after the whisper of God’s presence

And again, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” God prefers the quiet presence rather than the loud, spectacular fireworks. Moses wanted to experience the full show, but he got only the tail-end. Perhaps Elijah hoped for the same thing; he got only the whisper.

Many Christians look for miracles; many look for clear proofs that God exists. But God is not in the business of proving himself or catering to human vanity – even when the human  is someone as important to God as Moses or Elijah! No, God is subtle; God prefers the quiet way, the long-enduring way. Elijah is too full of himself; he is still not satisfied. God asks him again, “What are you doing here?” Elijah repeats his lament how he is the only one left who is faithful to God. But God corrects him. No Elijah, you’re not the only one, there are seven thousand others! Here are your instructions….

Let’s jump about 900 years to the future, when Jesus took three of his disciples up to a mountain in Judea. There he was transfigured and there appeared with him Moses and Elijah! The two men who wished to see God’s glory, God’s presence, finally got their wish, 900 years later in Elijah’s case, 1300 years later in Moses’ case! God does not act on our schedule. But Moses and Elijah finally did get their wish; they got to see the glory of God on earth. Because the glory of God was present in the face and body of Jesus Christ. The feast of Transfiguration is coming on August 6th, and it is one of the most glorious and most beautiful celebrations of the Orthodox Church.

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church. Elijah is shown on the left and Moses on the right (holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments)

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church. Elijah is shown on the left and Moses on the right (holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments)

The end of Elijah’s life was unique and beyond anything in the Hebrew scriptures, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Book of Kings. Elisha has become Elijah’s trusted disciple. Elisha knows that his master is about to be taken away, so he refuses to leave Elijah’s side. An amazing conversation follows:

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

Elijah’s question is innocent enough. But Elisha’s answer is anything but typical. A double share of Elijah’s spirit? That would be a very arrogant request if it came from anyone other than the man appointed by God to be Elijah’s disciple and successor. But prophets can speak like this, because they know their lives are not their own and it is God who is at work in everything they do. The “spirit” is the ruah of God, the breath of God that animates and inspires everything the prophets do and say.

Elijah answers Elisha. It is not in his power to grant Elisha’s request. God is in control. If God wants Elisha to succeed Elijah and receive double portion of the spirit. Elisha will witness the ascent of Elijah:

“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Elisha sees Elijah ascend to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Elisha sees Elijah ascend to heaven in a fiery chariot.

And so it happens. Elisha sees Elijah’s ascent in a fiery chariot. The deed is done; Elisha will receive the double portion and will succeed Elijah as “troubler of Israel.” If Elisha had a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Jesus, of course, had the fulness of the Spirit resting on him. Jesus, too, was a “troubler of Israel.” But he is also the “troubler” of every nation that puts its trust in idols and false prophets; he is troubler of every power and principality that aims to dominate the human spirit.


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A Prophet like Jesus

Have you ever wondered why in the Gospels Jesus is often confused for Elijah? Who was Elijah? And why would people think of Jesus as Elijah? July 20th is the feast day of Elijah the Prophet, so I’d like to reflect on his life and relationship to Jesus. He is one of the most popular saints in the Orthodox Church: Prophet Elias (Προφήτης Ηλίας). Wherever there is a mountain or hill in Greece it’s almost a certainty that at the peak is a church or chapel dedicated to the Prophet Elias.

Elijah lived about 850 years before Jesus, so it seems that some people thought Jesus was Elijah come back from the dead. Not a totally unreasonable thing since no one ever saw Elijah die. But more on that later. My question is why would anyone confuse Jesus for Elijah? Was there any similarity between Elijah and Jesus? Between the ministry and activity of Jesus and the ministry and activity of Elijah?

Here are some obvious similarities:

Neither wrote anything. Well, Jesus did write some words in the sand (John 8:6), but you know how it is with words in the sand; the wind quickly sweeps them away. Elijah was not one of those prophets who left writings .

Both spoke truth to power and preached against idolatry and economic injustice. As a result, both were persecuted by those in power.

Both performed remarkable miracles.

Both ascended to heaven.

Elijah burst upon the scene soon after Ahab became king of Israel, around the year 870 BC. Ahab’s reign became notorious for injustice, idolatry, and for the worship of Baal, which Ahab and his wife Jezebel actively promoted. The name Jezebel has become almost a synonym for an evil woman.

Bronze statuette of Baal from the 14th century BC

Bronze statuette of Baal from the 14th century BC

The name Baal was the generic name for a number of spirit-deities in Canaanite regions (mostly what is today Syria). Baal became the catch-name for the prophets’ attacks on the worship of idols and false gods during the centuries of the Israelite monarchy. Ahab and Jezebel were aggressive promoters of Baal worship. The First Book of Kings tells us that Ahab did more evil than all the previous kings of Israel. Elijah comes to Ahab (1 Kings 17:1-7) and declares to him that there will be no rain in the land until he says so! From this point on, he is an enemy of Ahab and the state! So he flees to the desert, where he is fed by ravens.

Elijah fed by a raven

Elijah fed by a raven (click to enlarge)

Chapter 18 of 1 Kings is the dramatic confrontation between Elijah and Ahab. God sends rain after three years of drought and commands Elijah to go and appear before Ahab. I love the way Ahab greets Elijah: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” This is the prophet’s first job: to cause trouble to those in power. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of modern Christianity is that there are no troublers. There are no Christian voices against the political and economic powers that promote the idolatry of money, violence and war. Christians have surrendered the fight against the Baal spirits of our time to secular activists. Where are the Elijahs of today? Elijah answered Ahab, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

Now that’s a challenge! Elijah will confront 850 representatives of Baal and the goddess Asherah – one prophet of God against 850 “prophets” of idols. The confrontation is spectacular, and it’s best to read it in 1 Kings 18:20-40.

Elijah faces the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel

Elijah faces the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (click to enlarge)

It is important to know that there are false prophets in the Bible. The prophets of Baal and Asherah were false because they were in the service of idols. But there were also false prophets in Israel who claimed to speak for God – but God did not speak through them, so they were false. False prophets were never troublers; they usually preached messages of false comfort and peace when there was no peace. In other words, false prophets were the servants of false gods and of earthly powers. Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal and Asherah was followed by their extermination. This doesn’t sit well with us in the 21st century, it smells too much like the acts of terror that plague the world. It didn’t sit well with Elijah either. Though the biblical text (1 Kings 19:1-10) tells us that Elijah fled in fear of Jezebel, it is easy to read between the lines and discern the deep psychological trauma that he experienced after the showdown and massacre of the Baal prophets.

Elijah in the Desert, Michael D. O’Brien Elijah the Prophet is exhausted and in flight from the queen, who seeks to take his life. He is discouraged, convinced that his mission from God has come to an end. He wishes to die in the desert. The greater part of his work is about to begin.

“Elijah in the Desert” by Michael D. O’Brien
Elijah the Prophet is exhausted and in flight from the queen, who seeks to take his life. He is discouraged, convinced that his mission from God has come to an end.

Elijah sinks into depression and sees himself as a failure. He wishes to die right there in the desert, but God has more in store for Elijah. Much greater encounters await Elijah, encounters with God across a thousand years. We will continue the story of Elijah in a second blog post this weekend. Thank you for reading this far.


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“Why do we fast?”

I heard an interesting story this morning on NPR. Ari Shapiro reported from Jerusalem on a gathering of Palestinian Moslems and Israeli Jews to wage peace. They gather in the evening, after a day of fasting, to break their fast together: observant Jews to mark the beginning of the destruction of the Temple and Moslems to mark the holy month of Ramadan. One of the Jewish women participating explained the meaning of fasting for the Jews: For Jews, fasting is to beseech God. “Look, we’re withholding pleasure, we’re withholding food and drink, because we need you to recognize that something is going on that needs attention.”

I heard that and I thought to myself that is exactly how fasting was viewed in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament). As a matter of fact, in Isaiah chapter 58 God speaks to the people through the prophet. First, the people are quoted as they present their fasting to God, and then God responds with God’s own view on fasting. This is a powerful passage that every “observant” Christian, Jew or Moslem should read a few times a year. I’m posting this passage from Isaiah here without further comment from me. Anything I say will be redundant. But I will have more to say about fasting as we approach the August fast in the Orthodox Church known as the Dormition Fast (Aug 1-14). But here is the passage from Isaiah. The people question God and then God speaks for the rest of the passage. Notice how similar is the language of the people’s questioning of God to what the Jewish woman told Ari Shapiro. Perhaps that gathering of Jews and Moslems to break fast together is precisely an action of the kind that God honors in this passage from Isaiah. Perhaps their fast will reach God more than all the diplomatic and non-diplomatic maneuvers of the military powers:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Is 58:3–14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


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Jesus and the Law

Today in the Orthodox churches that follow the Byzantine rite is the Sunday of the Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. This was the Council that met in Chalcedon in the year 451.

Chalcedon was located in what today is Turkey, across the water from Constantinople (click to enlarge)

Chalcedon was located in what today is Turkey, across the water from Constantinople (click to enlarge)

The council met to elucidate the “orthodox” understanding of the two natures in Christ – in other words, how is it that Jesus Christ is both God and Man and how the divine and human natures coexist in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The Fathers of Chalcedon defined their faith in

… one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, indivisibly, inseparably; (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως) the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God (μονογενῆ Θεόν), the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…

Unfortunately, the Council of Chalcedon was politically divisive and only in recent decades have we realized that the divisions that resulted from this council were mostly due to misunderstandings. Unintentionally, the Epistle reading for today, Titus 3:8-15, might cause one to pause and question the reasons for the 5th-century controversy.

But we are not in the 5th century, we are in the 21st century and today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 5:14-19, is far more relevant to our own lives. It raises questions about the relationship of Jesus to the Mosaic Law and the place of legalism in our own lives.

What did Jesus think of the Law? “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” That seems clear enough – except it isn’t.

Until what is accomplished? The end of the world? Until the Law is accomplished somehow in the life of Christ? Or in his death and resurrection? Most Christians, including the Orthodox Church, have generally preferred the last interpretation. But the Orthodox tradition, with its strong emphasis on the incarnation, also sees the life of Christ as fulfilling the Law. For example, on January 1st, when we commemorate the circumcision of Christ on the eighth day after his birth, the church sees Christ’s submission to the Law of Moses as a fulfilling of the Law. As the main hymn of the day puts it, “by accepting circumcision in the flesh, you, O Christ, fulfilled the law.”

But what Jesus himself meant by “accomplished” is not clear. Not only are Jesus’ words ambiguous, but Jesus actually appears to contradict himself immediately after saying that he didn’t come to abolish the law:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”(Matthew 5:38-39 & 43-44)

Clearly he negated the law (or at least the way the law was understood) in these declarations. More importantly, he repeatedly ignored or broke the sabbath law. And how about the incident with the adulterous woman (John 8:2-11)? The Pharisees and the scribes of the law were ready to stone the woman to death, as required by the Mosaic Law, but Jesus challenged them: “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” They all walked away and left the woman alone. In this too, Jesus saw the Law differently than the religious leaders of his society.

In chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus attacks the Pharisees and the scribes as hypocrites. At one point he says that “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Jesus is here undoubtedly referring to the many human laws that were added over the centuries and which had become a burden hard to bear by most ordinary people. The same can be said of the many laws that have accumulated in the church tradition, especially under the influence of legalistic monks.

So what “law” does Jesus say he didn’t come to abolish? The Law God gave to Moses, or the hundreds of laws that were added to God’s Law? And here it should be noted that biblical scholars have proven that most of the laws in Leviticus and the other books of the Torah (the books attributed to Moses) came many centuries after Moses! Indeed, most of the laws attributed to Moses were actually added almost a thousand years later!

Is it possible that Jesus had a different understanding of the “law”? After all, he is the Word of God, he is the author of everything that comes from God. He is the lord of the Sabbath, as he repeatedly asserted. If there is a Law that was given to Moses by God, no one can know it better than the one who wrote it! And that person is the Word of God.

Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish “the law and the prophets.” Here he is not thinking of prophets as predictors of the future, but rather in their primary mission as revealers of God’s will and judgments. For example, consider these two prophetic utterances:

Hosea 6:6 “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Micah 6:8 “He has told you what is good. And what does The Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

This is the same spirit in which Jesus spoke. Let’s not forget that Jesus summarized the entire law and prophets in the two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40

There are too many legalists in the churches. Too many people who easily quote Leviticus or some other book of the Bible to attack someone they don’t like or don’t agree with. But be careful how you quote Leviticus. Because the person you’re attacking might just be able to quote Leviticus back at you and have you stoned to death! I’m saying this tongue-in-cheek obviously, but it’s true. There are enough laws in the various books of the Bible to cover pretty much every one of us. So it’s best to avoid quoting Leviticus or any of the countless laws that legalists love. Jesus told us not to judge lest we be judged.

Stay clear of legalism. Legalism kills. It makes you judge people; and it makes you feel a failure, because you can never satisfy your own legalistic thinking. It’s better to stick to the two greatest commandments that Jesus gave that summarize the entire law and prophets. And let’s not forget the “new commandment” he gave that we should love one another (John 13:34-35). Add the words of the prophets into the mix, like the ones quoted above, and you can’t go wrong. And you won’t have to worry about how the law is fulfilled or when “all is accomplished.”

So was Jesus ambiguous in his statement about abolishing the law and the prophets? Yes, and ambiguity is safer than thinking that you have it all figured out. When you think you have it all figured out, that’s when you become a legalist, and legalism kills the spirit. But did Jesus contradict himself? Superficially it appears like he contradicted his own saying. But if you look more deeply into how Jesus saw the Law, he was very consistent.


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Fellowship and Movement

This blog is a place for theological and topical reflections and a sister to the website of the parish that I pastor, Holy Trinity Orthodox Church.

Holy Trinity – what a beautiful name for a Christian congregation, a name that brings us to the heart of the Christian faith. And the heart of the Christian faith is not a dogma, but a fellowship of being. Most Christians relate to the conventional trinitarian terminology “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as dogma. Of course, it is dogma, a fundamental dogma of Christianity. But it is also a dogma that has been frequently misinterpreted or misapplied. It has led to idolatrous and downright heretical icons showing an old bearded man, a younger bearded man, and a bird! No wonder most people imagine God in masculine terms. We have such an icon in our iconostasion:

The iconostasion at Holy Trinity Church, with "icon of the Holy Trinity" second on the left from the center.

The iconostasion at Holy Trinity Church, with “icon of the Holy Trinity” second on the left from the center (click to enlarge)

We had a second, similar, one at the entrance, but we replaced that one with an icon that more truly represents the Orthodox understanding of Trinity:

HT Icon 35X65 900dpi copy

The Hospitality of Abraham icon at the entrance of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (click to enlarge)

The icon which Orthodox tradition calls “The Hospitality of Abraham” shows the scene in Genesis 18 when Abraham and Sarah were visited by three men who somehow represented the presence of God. Most likely they were angels, and the icon shows them with wings. But the iconographic tradition is very faithful to the book of Genesis and sees them as somehow representing God the Trinity. Indeed, this is the only acceptable icon of the Trinity; but it must not be taken as a literal representation of the Trinity.

Trinity is fellowship – the fellowship of equals. But within the fellowship of equals, one is the source of being. Notice how the second and third persons are shown leaning toward the first person. Clearly, the two derive their being from the first. There is fellowship and movement in this icon. The inner life of the Trinity is dynamic. If the church is to be the medium of God’s presence and activity in the world, its existence must also be dynamic. The church fails when it chooses the safety of what is known no matter how outdated it is.

The icon of the Hospitality of Abraham saves us from the danger of idolatry. It prevents us from thinking in exclusively masculine terms. The three figures are male, but masculinity is not what defines them. Their appearance and relationship to each other are expressions of profound theology and mysticism. One can pray before such an icon. One can experience mystical unity before such an icon. And every congregation can understand the mission of the church as fellowship and movement.

There is something static about the terminology “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” but the icon reminds us that the Orthodox tradition has drawn on the full richness of biblical language to speak of the Trinity. Especially important is the identity of Jesus as the Word (Logos), just as we read in the Gospel of John. The dynamic Word of God is the means by which God created the universe. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Philippians 2:6-11 Paul sees the entire history of Jesus as a story of movement.

The first two verses of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2, picture the Holy Spirit (the ruah of God) as a wind sweeping over the primeval chaos, before God began to give form to the creation. Today also the Holy Spirit sweeps over the chaos that humans have created: political chaos, economic chaos, environmental chaos, moral chaos, spiritual and psychological chaos, confusion in all realms of life and thought, devaluation of the arts, the loss of human individuality, privacy and freedom… The Spirit is ready to sweep away the chaos. But the chaos is created by us, so the Spirit will not sweep the chaos away without our cooperation.

Jesus, in the Gospel of John, calls the Spirit by the Greek word Paraklitos, which means Comforter, Counselor, Advocate… The Spirit counsels, inspires, guides and comforts us in our struggles. But the Spirit does not impose God’s will on anyone, not even on the planet. Jesus spoke of “rivers of living water” overflowing from the hearts of those who believe in him, and by this he meant the Spirit. The meaning is clear: God gives the Spirit, and we allow the Spirit to flow out of our hearts, our words and actions. We are meant to be co-workers with the Spirit. There are too many in the Church who simply believe that the Spirit blesses everything we undertake, especially if we say the right prayers or do the proper ritual. No, there is freedom in our relationship with God. God respects our freedom. God also is free, and cannot be manipulated by rituals or prayers. God reads our hearts, not our rituals

In the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-4) the Spirit is described as “a violent rushing wind” and “tongues of fire”! In (John 7:37-52), Jesus described the Spirit as “rivers of living water.” Dynamic images of movement describe the Spirit as much as they describe the Word. And it’s all because God wants to share fellowship with us – the same fellowship that exists within the Trinity. Yes, the Trinity is a foundational dogma of the Christian faith. But it is more than dogma. It is an invitation to share life with God and with each other. The life of the Christian should be a life of fellowship and movement. Look upon the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham and enter into the hospitality of God. Next time you enter Holy Trinity Church in Portland stop and gaze on this icon for a bit. Let it show you the inner life of the Trinity. Let it show you the life you and I are to live – a life of fellowship and movement. God does not remain still. Neither should we. The Christian life is meant to be a life of renewal, transformation and TRANSFIGURATION. More on transfiguration as we come to the feast of Transfiguration on August 6th. In the meantime, rejoice in the hospitality of God!