Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Day for a Beheading

August 29th is observed every year as a commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. The story is told most fully in Mark 6:14-30.

beheading of john

Icon of the beheading of John the Baptist, showing Salome waiting to receive the head of John

The story is gruesome, and the composer Richard Strauss took advantage of the gruesome aspects in creating his shocking opera, Salome. The daughter of Herodias is not named in the Gospel narratives, but Salome is the name that tradition has given her. She was coached by her mother to request the head of John the Baptist, which she did. But that’s the stuff that operas and melodramas are based on. The true meaning of this day lies elsewhere.

Why was John put in jail to begin with? Because he accused King Herod for committing incest by marrying his sister-in-law, Herodias. But that too is the stuff of melodrama and there is confusion in the historical records about Philip, Salome and Herodias. No, it’s not melodrama and royal intrigues that interests us today. Rather, it is the ministry of John himself.

John was imprisoned because he spoke truth to power. His conflict with Herod and Herodias echoes the conflict of the prophet Elijah with Ahab and Jezebel in the time of ancient Israel. In the Orthodox Church, John is called Prophet and Forerunner. He was prophet because, like the prophets of ancient Israel, he proclaimed God’s judgment on sin. And he was prophet also in the sense that he spoke of the coming of Christ, the Messiah. But he did more than speak of Christ’s coming. He also prepared the way for the coming; hence he is also called Forerunner (Prodromos in Greek). His appearance in the desert, baptizing people and preparing them to receive the coming of Christ, was a fulfillment of the prophesy spoken by Isaiah 40:2-4, The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lordmake straight in the desert a highway for our God,” to quote the King James version that was set to music my Handel in his great oratorio, Messiah. (See and hear the tenor soloist singing these words at about the 10-minute mark of this video of the complete oratorio; or at about the 8-minute mark of this alternative video recording.)

John appeared in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. The desert is the place where God encountered Israel throughout the ages. It was in the desert that God appeared to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). It was in the desert that God led the people of Israel to the promised land. It was in the desert that God revealed himself to Elijah (1 Kings 19). And so on.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the desert was the place of testing – where the people were tested by God and God himself was tested by the people. The desert symbolizes the arid heart, the human heart that has drifted away from God. So it is in the desert that God goes looking for us. It was in the desert that John preached and baptized, preparing the way of the Lord. And it was in the desert that Jesus himself was tested (Luke 4) after his baptism by John.

Icons of John the Baptist often show him preaching in the desert with his severed head on display.

john the baptist

 The message of the icon is clear. From the moment John went out in the desert, it was a foregone conclusion that John would die a brutal death. Herod and Herodias were not the only enemies he created. He challenged all levels of society (Luke 3:1-20), especially the powerful. He was the last of the Hebrew prophets. He prepared the way for one mightier than he: “I baptize you with water; but one who is mightier than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). The powers destroyed John, as they would later destroy the One whose way he prepared. The Forerunner’s spiritual unity with Christ was complete.

The Church honors the beheading of John the Forerunner every year on August 29th. May today be a call to every one of us to go out into the desert places of our lives to hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Every one of us can prepare the way of the Lord. The desert is in us and all around us. It is the place where God waits to meet us, to heal us, to baptize us with Spirit and fire.


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Forgiveness According to Jesus

Last Sunday’s (Aug 24th) Gospel reading continues to haunt me. It’s a beautiful parable, one that is typical of how Jesus taught the unconditional love of God. Unfortunately, the parable raises troubling questions in addition to answering the universal human need for forgiveness.

icon-unmerciful-servant

In the parable, a king forgives a huge debt (in today’s money, literally millions of dollars!) to one of his servants. But that servant then refuses to forgive the debt of another man – a debt that is miniscule (a few hundred dollars) in comparison – and throws that poor man into jail. The king in the parable represents God. God’s unconditional forgiveness is contrasted to the human inability to forgive.

So far so good. I have no doubt that this is precisely the image of God that Jesus preached. And it is this image that brought him into conflict with the religious establishment of his time – and of every place and time – because human beings, especially religious humans, prefer the “eye for an eye” image of God. The parable, as Matthew reports it, adds a coda which I find troubling. The king changes his mind and throws the unforgiving servant into jail, to be “tortured” until the debt is paid – which, of course, means for the rest of his life, since there will be no way for him to pay off the huge debt. This turnabout is shocking. And just to drive home the message lest we try to ignore it, Jesus adds the punchline to the parable: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” All of a sudden, God is turned into an oriental king. Instead of the king being an image of God, God becomes the image of a terrorizing king!

unforgiving_servant1

A literal reading of the parable leaves me with three options:

  1. Jesus meant exactly what we read, in which case the jail into which the unforgiving servant is thrown is understood as eternal hell and God ends up being more ruthless than any “eye for an eye” deity of the ancient world. I reject this option.

  2. The entire parable is hyperbole; after all, how would a servant of the king owe a hundred million dollars? In this case, the punishment of the unforgiving servant is also hyperbole and should not be interpreted as eternal (or even life-long) punishment. Instead, the punishment is intended to convey the need for accountability in our relations with each other and with God. This is a more palatable interpretation and sits comfortably for most Christians of all stripes and denominations. I can live with this.

  3. There is a third possibility. The original parable that Jesus spoke simply showed the contrast between the actions of the king and the unforgiving servant and ended perhaps with the release of the second servant from the prison into which the unforgiving servant had thrown him. But since human beings, including the early followers of Christ who wrote the Gospels, have trouble accepting unconditional forgiveness to people who are clearly undeserving, something had to be done to make the parable more palatable. So Matthew, or someone else, added the king’s change of mind at the end. Since we Orthodox are not fundamentalists or evangelicals, we should have no fundamental problem in imagining such a possibility. After all, the New Testament is the Church’s book and the Church determined its contents from the beginning. I can live with this possibility. Only the first option above do I reject categorically, as it conflicts with most of Jesus’ teachings.

Regardless of which of these three options one chooses in reading this parable, the teaching of the parable is crystal clear and needs no interpretative gymnastics: “forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Forgive one another is just as central a command of Jesus as “Love one another.” And the two go hand in hand. You cannot love another person if you’re not always ready to forgive him or her. Not only forgive one another, but forgive one another unconditionally! If we are to reflect God’s way, we are to forgive one another unconditionally, without limits. As a matter of fact, it was a question by Peter about forgiveness that prompted the parable of the unforgiving servant: Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Unconditional forgiveness is the message of the parable. God’s unconditional forgiveness is central to the teachings of all Christian churches. Indeed, forgiveness of sins is the key requirement for salvation. Orthodox and Catholics take a sacramental view of forgiveness of sins: Baptism, Communion, Confession and Unction are all sacraments that convey forgiveness of sins. But in all these sacraments, the Christian stands before God and receives forgiveness through the sacrament and the mediation of the priest. The Protestant tradition takes a different approach, bypassing the sacramental way. Baptism is still required by them, but only as a visual expression of a person coming to Christ and requesting forgiveness of his or her sins. The sinner stands before God and God alone.

An Evangelical use (or misuse) of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

An Evangelical use (or misuse) of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (click to enlarge)

Jesus goes beyond the churches in teaching forgiveness. He brings us to God; but he also brings us to the other, the brother or sister. He invites us to see the other person through his own eyes. This is true and complete reconciliation and the full meaning of forgiveness.

Jesus invites us to a life of reconciliation with God and with each other

Jesus invites us to a life of reconciliation with God and with each other


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Life and Death on August 6th

On this day, 69 years ago, the B-52 bomber Enola Gay, dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on the Japanese city Hiroshima. About 70,000 people were killed instantly and tens of thousands of survivors died in the months and years following from radiation poisoning. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The nuclear age was born. Wikipedia’s article on the two bombings is extremely detailed.

Devastated Hiroshima After the Bomb

View of devastated Hiroshima from the B-52 that destroyed it

Defenders of the bombings maintain that they were necessary in order to bring World War II to an end, but the morality of these bombings has been debated endlessly. Albert Einstein, whose own equations led to the creation of the atomic bomb, became a leading spokesman against the spread of nuclear weapons. To no avail, of course, and 69 years after Hiroshima we still live under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. The most powerful weapons available today are about 2,000-3,000 times more powerful than the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blinding light of a nuclear explosion is all too familiar to all of us from photos and videos and apocalyptic science-fiction films. As one survivor of Hiroshima put it in an interview this morning, “Atomic bombs were dropped not only on our cities, but on the whole human beings.”

The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki

The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki

But we Orthodox Christians have another blinding light to contemplate today – the light that shone from Jesus Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. This light was not destructive. This light spread out from the divine presence of Christ and touched the three disciples that were with Jesus; it touched Moses and Elijah, who appeared in a vision with the transfigured Jesus; it touched all creation; and it touches all of us who gaze on the beauty of Christ and believe in his name.

The rays of divine glory permeate all creation.

The rays of divine glory permeate and deify all creation.

The transfiguration of Jesus is the source of the Orthodox doctrine of deification. Most Christian churches and denominations believe in the idea of sanctification – that we can be made holy, sanctified – but only the Orthodox theological tradition is committed to the belief that the divine light that flowed and still flows out of Christ deifies human beings and all material existence!

Transfiguration mosaic at St. Catherine church on Mount Sinai

Transfiguration mosaic at St. Catherine church on Mount Sinai

As many of the Fathers of the early Church put it, “God became human so that the human can become God.” You can remove the capital letter from the second occurrence of God in this quote if you’re afraid of causing offense to God. It changes nothing. You can say, “God became man so that man might become god,” if that is easier for you. Just as you can write G*d, as some scholars do to imitate the Jewish practice of avoiding the name of God. You can write and re-write the names and words that stand for God. You can be politically correct – it doesn’t change the simple assertion that the light that emanates from the transfigured Christ touches all creation, deifying, purifying, making us and all creation capable of inheriting the Kingdom of God.

Human empires and war machines destroy. The blinding light of a thermonuclear weapon is the greatest offense that humanity has ever thrown at God; it is our Tower of Babel. The light that was God’s very first act of creation, by the very first words spoken by God by his Word (Genesis 1:1-3), has been turned into the vision of total destruction. The darkness that was overcome by the first light in Genesis now threatens to return once again, this time brought on by another light, the destructive light of human weapons.

The Hiroshima Dome after the devastation

The Hiroshima Dome after the devastation

The Hiroshima Dome remains today in the skyline of Hiroshima as the Peace Memorial, as a message of new life

The Hiroshima Dome remains today (center) in the skyline of Hiroshima as the Peace Memorial, as a message of new life (click to enlarge)

This is why we Orthodox must stand by the Light of Transfiguration. Let us not be ashamed to admit that this light is a deifying light, a light that prepares us for divine life of the Kingdom of God. Be deified today! That is the message of Transfiguration. Today is the day of salvation, today is the day when the light can penetrate our lives and transfigure us. There is a wonderful story about St. Seraphim of Sarov. It is rather long, but is well worth reading when you have some time to enter into a contemplative quiet. St. Seraphim in this experience recounted by a visitor, N. A. Motovilov, actually shone with the light of the Transfiguration, showing to all of us that it is possible to live a divine life by the grace of God while on earth. The mission of the saints, and the Church as a whole, is to sanctify the world, to be a blessing and a light in the midst of darkness. As St. Seraphim himself asserted, “Acquire the spirit of God, and around you thousands will be saved.” You don’t have to go into a monastery and cut yourself off from the life of ordinary people. Everyone can be touched by the light of divine glory; everyone can be transformed into light by the grace of God. Near the end of Motovilov’s narrative, we read:

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”

I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”

Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”

St. Seraphim of Sarov in the divine light with Motovilov

St. Seraphim of Sarov in the divine light with Motovilov

The Book of Deuteronomy tells us to choose life, not death: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…” (Deut 30:19) We believe in life, ALL LIFE! The Feast of Transfiguration is our teacher; it inspires us to yearn for the most meaningful life that we can possibly have. It tells us to reject death and all the powers and principalities of darkness, and to preach and promote life and light. This is the message of Transfiguration.

There are two messages on this date of August 6th: Life and Death. The Transfiguration stands against Hiroshima and shouts to us: CHOOSE LIFE! May Life be yours today and every day. May the divine Light of the Kingdom illumine your life and path every day.

A super-powerful hydrogen bomb is tested

A super-powerful hydrogen bomb is tested: Messenger of Death

 

Transfiguration of Christ: Messenger of Life and Glory

Transfiguration of Christ: Messenger of Life and Glory


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High Christology of Creation (Some Preliminary Thoughts)

Christology is the branch of theology that deals with the person of Jesus Christ. There are a few passages of the New Testament that are considered high points of christology. What is remarkable about these passages is that they seem to be fragments of early Christian hymns. It appears that the early Christians expressed their understanding of Christ in hymns before they attempted theological explanations. Or, perhaps it is more correct to say that hymns became the earliest forms of theology!

What is even more remarkable is that most of these early hymnic expressions of high christology link their exalted vision of Christ to Christ as Creator! We can’t look at Christ in isolation from Creation. This is something that Orthodox can understand, as so much of our faith is expressed doxologically, in words and actions of worship and praise. The Orthodox the feast of Transfiguration this week (August 6th) is one of the two feasts in the church calendar (the other being Theophany, on January 6th) that most explicitly celebrate the impact on creation of Christ’s coming in the flesh.

Creator of All (click to enlarge)

Creator of All

Creator of All Living Beings (click to enlarge)

Creator of All Living Beings

Let’s look at some of the lofty passages of christology in the New Testament. Consider Colossians 1:15-20.
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things 
in heaven and on earth
were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or powers.
All things have been created
through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, 
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come
to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God 
was pleased to dwell, 
and through him God was pleased
to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace
through the blood of his cross.
First Corinthians 8:6 is more concise: 
For us there is one God, the Father, 
from whom are all things
and for whom we exist,
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom are all things
and through whom we exist.
Hebrews 1:3 is even more concise:
He is the reflection of God’s glory 
and the exact imprint of God’s very being,
and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
And there is John 1:1-18, the amazing prologue to the Gospel of John that we read every Pascha at the midnight Liturgy. Here are the key sections of this great passage:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. 
All things came into being through him, 
and without him not one thing came into being
that has come into being.
In him was life, 
and the life was the light of all people.
The true light,
which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
But to all who received him, 
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God. 
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, 
and we have seen his glory.
From his fullness we have all received, 
grace upon grace.
The law indeed was given through Moses; 
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God. 
It is God the only Son,
who is close to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known.
How perceptive of the Orthodox tradition to read this Gospel passage at the Anastasis (Resurrection) Liturgy. The resurrection was the ultimate manifestation of Christ’s role in creation – in this case, the new creation. Christ, as the Word of God, was the One through whom everything in the original creation came into being. God created by the Word. Don’t just take John’s word for it. Listen to Genesis: And God said, “Let there be light… And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…” And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image…” God created everything by speaking the Word. Christ as the Word was the Creator of everything that exists. Christ, as Risen Lord, brought about the New Creation. We are living in the new creation, and it is Christ’s continuing sanctification of the new creation that we celebrate on Aug 6th. Christ is transfigured on the mountain, and the icon shows the rays of divine glory radiating outwards from Christ and touching Moses and Elijah standing next to him, the apostles lying on the ground, blinded by the light, and all creation, including us who are members of the new creation!
Orthodox Icon of the Transfiguration (click to enlarge)

Orthodox Icon of the Transfiguration (click to enlarge)

In everything having to do with Creation, we see Christ: as the Word that brings everything into being; as the Risen Lord who brings about the new creation; and the One who sanctifies and deifies all creation with the glory of the Transfiguration. This the Christology of Creation!

The Blinding Glory of the Transfigured Christ (click to enlarge)

The Blinding Glory of the Transfigured Christ (click to enlarge)