Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Big Ben and I

 

Paul today gives us a glimpse into the connected world of the early Christians. There was no Internet, no cell phones, no Facebook or Twitter – and yet those early Christians were connected! Paul rejoices at the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicos. They made up for the separation and absence of the rest of the community; “they refreshed my spirit as well as yours.” Ἀνέπαυσαν γὰρ τὸ ἐμὸν πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὑμῶν. “The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. All the brethren send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

Today I’m inspired by Paul’s sense of connectedness. And in my own way, I also feel connected. I have become friends with people that I have never met in person – thanks to the Internet, my blog, Facebook. One of my favorite friends on Facebook is a young woman in Greece whose father died here in Portland after several months at Maine Medical Center. Some of you may remember Maria, her mother Eirene and her brother Vasili. Maria writes things on Facebook that go very deep into the human condition. She is alert to things that the rest of us might not pay any attention to, and she allows these incidents to inspire her.

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There was a fairly trivial news item last week which I saw on BBC World News, about Big Ben in London losing time. It’s running about 6 seconds slow! Not exactly a world shaking news story, coming in the same week as hundreds of refugees dying in the Mediterranean and in a truck in Austria, the same week as a terror attack in a train in France, more gun killings in America, etc. But my friend Maria was moved by this little story of Big Ben losing time to reflect on her own losing touch with time and other things in her own life. She writes, some people run a few seconds behind time; others are centuries behind the time! Big Ben loses a few swings of its pendulum, while for other people the entire ground under their lives disappears!

We are all united by this noun – “loss” – and its verb. We all lose something, someone, some aspect of our personality, something that makes us unique and remarkable. Life is a series of losses. And yet it is also a series of gains. I have lost much over the years – physical mobility, parents, friends and parishioners, energy – and yet I have gained even more – new friends, new insights and understanding, new talents, new desire to go on, new faith that is my own rather than what I have received, and so on. This is what the connected life is all about. My connected life, your connected life.

Just as my friend Maria is inspired to reflect on the importance of loss in life, so I’m inspired by her words to reflect on my own life. We learn from each other. It’s what it means to be connected. It was physically difficult and yet spiritually easy in the time of Paul to stay connected. Today, it is physically easy to stay in touch and to be connected with the world, and yet spiritually difficult to have a meaningful connection. But the choice is always ours to establish meaningful connections and friendships. The choice is always ours to deepen our understanding of what’s going on in the world, to listen to different viewpoints, and appreciate the artistry and potential of the human spirit.

Just as Maria inspires me every day with her words on Facebook, so also I was inspired by Alex & Byron and their decision to fly to Lesvos and help with the Syrian refugees who daily land with dingy boats on that island. They are inspired by their friendship with a couple on the island and after this trip they will undoubtedly feel connected to the tragic lives of people fleeing war, terrorism and starvation. Through Alex & Byron, we also can feel connected and send a “holy kiss” to desperate people.

“Greet one another with a holy kiss,” Paul tells his readers. We also are his readers. Let’s not stop at greeting only each other. Let’s greet with a holy kiss people we’ve never met and probably never will meet. Through Alex & Byron we can send our love to many lives. We can refresh them, as Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicos refreshed, Ἀνέπαυσαν, Paul. This is how we make these words alive for us and for the world.

 


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The Impossible Dream

Two questions concern me today about the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-27 and Matthew 19:16-26). 1. Why did the man ask about eternal life? 2. What did Jesus mean by “perfect”?

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Byzantine manuscript illustration of Jesus and the rich young man (click to enlarge)

Why did this man ask about eternal life? This wasn’t exactly a common concern in Judaism of the time. Ideas about resurrection to some form of judgment and life had begun to circulate among some groups 100-200 years before Christ – but mainly in times of persecution and national suffering. Times like that tend to bring out eschatological ideas and hopes. In Jesus’ time, Pharisees spoke of resurrection, but not the Sadducees, for example. Judaism was a religion of doing – and it still is. Most people had no time to speculate about such questions. They worried about providing for their families and where their next meal would come from. Only someone who was wealthy would have the time to be asking about eternal life!

Here was Jesus, going around preaching about eternal life and the kingdom of God – all rather unclear, let’s be honest. Jesus was different from other preachers and rabbis, so the young man is curious; he wants to make sure he’s not missing out on something. That was also typical of the wealthy – and it still is: they want everything, they’re never completely satisfied.

What good deed does he have to do to get this “eternal life” Jesus talked about? Jesus gives him the Ten Commandments. These commandments, given to Moses according to tradition, were never meant to give eternal life; they were commandments to guide life here, in community! Note Jesus’ initial answer: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Life, not eternal life.

The man is not satisfied. “I’ve kept all these commandments since my youth. What am I still missing?” This is the opening Jesus was waiting for. Let’s be clear: The only way to be rich in an agricultural society, especially one dominated by a foreign power (the Roman Empire), was by taking advantage of those who were weak and vulnerable and by charging interest on loans and eventually taking over possession of other people’s possessions and households. We see these dynamics reflected in many of Jesus’ parables and encounters.

So really, sir? You haven’t stolen, you haven’t given false testimony, and have you really loved your neighbor as yourself? Really? Okay, let’s get to the bottom of this. You want to get eternal life? You have to be perfect in order to get eternal life. And how are you going to be perfect? You have to give everything you own to the poor. And come follow me. A bombshell of an answer. Jesus makes it even more impossible: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter eternal life.

Manuscript illustration of the disciples expressing shock at the words of Jesus about a camel going through eye of a needle (click to enlarge)

Byzantine manuscript illustration of the disciples expressing shock at the words of Jesus about a camel going through eye of a needle (click to enlarge)

The disciples are shocked. Who then can be saved? Ah, with humans, it is impossible; but with God all things are possible. You want to inherit eternal life? There’s nothing you can do that will make it possible, nothing. Follow the commandments in order to live worthy lives here on earth. But eternal life? For that something else is needed.

Why does Jesus use the word “perfect”? Elsewhere, Jesus had said: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Why give everything to the poor? Because God gave everything! He gave his beloved Son. And he gave his Son to the poor and for the poor – meaning us, for we are the poor. To be perfect like God the rich man had to give everything like God did! That’s the key to Jesus’ answer. (Pardon the masculine language for God. It’s simply most convenient and biblical. I do not think of God as masculine.)

The young man should not have walked away, and perhaps he came back another day. The answer Jesus gave was not for the rich man alone, it was meant for all of us. He’s saying to us, you know what is good, you know how to live this life, you do not have the excuse of not knowing. You’ve heard it countless times, don’t pretend ignorance. Micah said it centuries before Jesus, and it’s still true today:

“He has told you, O people, 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?” (Micah 6:8)

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Perfection? It’s beyond human power. Eternal life? It’s impossible for human beings. But God who is perfect and the giver of eternal life has done what is needed. We should not be concerned with eternal life. We should only be concerned with life, the life of every day and every situation. This is where Jesus questions us.


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Thank you

I apologize I haven’t written much in recent weeks. It’s not because I have nothing to say, but rather I have too much to say. On any given day I can’t quite make up my mind as to what subject to explore, and very often I end up opting out of exploring anything. One thing I am realizing is that I need to go back to the sources and the roots of my own existence as a child of God. This means going back primarily to the Jewish background of Jesus Christ. We Orthodox – with our technical and philosophical doctrines of Trinity and Christology – have practically forgotten about the Jewish roots of Jesus. And yet, it’s there in our worship and prayers. Jews come to wedding services and are deeply impressed by how much our sacrament of marriage refers to the patriarchs and prophets of the Hebrew Bible. This morning I conducted a funeral service and once again I intoned the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And the final prayer of our funeral service asks God to give rest to the departed “in the bosom of Abraham.” So with all these references to Abraham and the patriarchs, you would think that we would be more aware of the Jewishness of our tradition. I want to explore the Jewish character of Jesus – and more specifically, the actual social and economic setting of Galilee where he began and did most of his ministry. Look for some of these explorations in the coming weeks and months.

Today I want to thank the many people who do follow or occasionally visit this blog site. I started this blog site in July of 2014. In the thirteen months since, I have had about 11,000 visits from 125 countries! That’s right, 125 countries. It’s remarkable really, and it shows the power of the Internet to communicate and connect. Of course, some of these visits have been one-time hits, perhaps through a Google search or a link, but the majority of visitors to my blog site have made repeat visits, which shows there is an interest in what I write. I’m humbled by that, quite frankly, because when I started this I expected only people who know me would ever bother checking it out, and I thought that I would be writing primarily for my own interest. Clearly that has not been the case. And it shows how someone like me who is a total unknown outside of a small circle of church people can have a readership in 125 countries – all because of this thing called the Internet.

I encourage anyone who enjoys writing and thinking to get onboard and start your own blog. I use WordPress, but there’s also Blogspot and other providers. And it’s free! You’d be surprised what will happen, just as I have been surprised. From the very start last year, my second highest number of readers, after the US, have been in Brazil. Do I know anyone in Brazil? No, and yet, consistently day by day, week by week, I have people in Brazil who visit my blog site. Then come UK, France, Australia, Italy, Canada, Greece, Germany, and on down the list of countries. The only parts of the world from which I’ve had no visitors have been Iran, Afghanistan, much of Central Africa, and some of the countries in Central Asia, Quite amazing. Some of the countries from which I’ve had visitors I didn’t know existed. Actually, I shouldn’t say that; having grown up in Canada and gone through high school in Montréal I learned geography – but I’m still shocked at some of the obscure countries that show up in my stats page.

So I want to take this opportunity to say THANK YOU to anyone and everyone who visits this blog site and takes the time to read what I post. I will try to write more frequently and better!

You may also want to visit the two blog sites of my friend Mike Mair in Scotland. He is not Orthodox – and I don’t always agree with him – but he has a real biblical mind and writes beautifully, even poetically. I admire his gifts for bringing out the many meanings of Scripture. But be prepared to be challenged if you visit his blog sites. He is currently doing a daily commentary through the Book of Revelation. His two blogs are at:

http://emmock.com

http://xtremejesus.co


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It’s always a birth

On August 15th the Orthodox Church observes the feast of the Dormition of Mary (Assumption in the Roman Catholic Church). The simple event of our Lady’s earthly death became adorned with all sorts of legendary additions which have never interested me. It’s the theological and mystical dimensions of this wonderful feast that interest me.

Dormition comes after Transfiguration in the month of August. They go together in celebrating our entry into the divine glory – what is often called ‘deification’, though that term is open to much controversy and misunderstanding, hence my preference for ‘entry into divine glory.’ In the Transfiguration the divine glory radiates outward from the transfigured form of the Lord, sanctifying creation and humanity. In the Dormition, Mary enters into the divine glory, she is no longer external to it.

 

Rays of divine glory emanate from the transfigured Christ

Rays of divine glory emanate from the transfigured Christ (click to enlarge)

Mary is taken into the divine glory as a newborn babe.

Mary is taken into the divine glory as a newborn babe (click to enlarge)

Mary enters into the divine glory as a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths. In the icon of the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), the infant Jesus is wrapped in swaddling cloths.

The Christmas icon (click to enlarge)

The Christmas icon (click to enlarge)

In the Nativity, Mary wrapped her infant Jesus in swaddling cloths.

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(click to enlarge)

In the Dormition, Jesus holds the spirit of Mary in swaddling cloths. In iconic form, the son becomes the mother!

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(click to enlarge)

The Dormition is not so much about the death of Mary but about her birth into eternal life and her entry into the divine glory. Salvation history can be seen as a series of entrances. Iconography is the best way to express this particular way of looking at salvation. And, indeed, we ‘look’. The north wall of our church contains four large wall icons, all of them expressing the theme of entrance:

The North Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge)

The North Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge) From left to right: Entrance into Jerusalem, Resurrection, Baptism

We have the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in Jerusalem as a young child (not shown in the photo above), then the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, The Resurrection and the Baptism. At the Baptism, Jesus entered into the created order and the human experience. At the Entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus entered into the city where he would die on the Cross. In the Resurrection icon, we see Jesus entering the realm of death to destroy the power of death. These are all key events in the process of Jesus entering into our world and existence. They are events that make up salvation history in the Christian understanding.

The south wall of our church contains just two large wall icons, and these complete the main iconographic scheme in our church.

The South Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge). Transfiguration and Dormition icons.

The South Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge). Transfiguration and Dormition icons.

Here we have the Transfiguration of Christ and the Dormition of Mary side by side. Not only do they fall on the same month, August, within a week of each other, but they also complete the theme of entrance. The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to enter into the divine glory – not to become God, but to be brought into the divine life. Jesus entered our existence so we could enter the divine existence.

Our iconography is uniquely gifted to represent these mirror aspects of salvation: Mary held Jesus in swaddling cloths; Jesus holds Mary in swaddling cloths. Jesus entered human existence; we enter divine existence. Many of the so-called Fathers of the Church spoke of Christ being born in us. Jesus was born of Mary physically. He is to be born in each of us spiritually. And he will receive each of us into divine glory, just as he received his mother: as a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” said Job in the midst of his trials (Job 1:21). Except we don’t quite return naked to the Lord; we return in swaddling cloths, like infants. As infants we enter the divine glory. Jesus himself said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4) It seems the good news of Jesus Christ always involves a birth!

 


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Silent no more

The healing of the epileptic boy raises some questions as to how we are to read the various healing miracles of Jesus. Matthew’s version that we read today in the Liturgy includes a word that is full of superstitious overtones: σεληνιάζεται. The English equivalent is ‘moonstruck’. Both in Greek and in English, the meaning is to say someone is acting crazy under the influence of the moon! Growing up in Greece I often heard this word being used in everyday language to describe people who were acting strange. And it was not uncommon for someone to be called σεληνιασμένος or be angrily addressed as “βρέ σεληνιασμένε!”

The father says his boy σεληνιάζεται. In English it’s usually translated to mean the boy is epileptic. Certainly that was the medical condition of the boy. But Matthew’s use of σεληνιάζεται connects his narrative to superstitious notions. Mark’s version of this healing avoids the word  σεληνιάζεται, but attributes the boy’s condition to a demon. Jesus performs an exorcism in all versions of this incident. And yet, the symptoms that Mark describes are easily diagnosed as severe epileptic seizures. So we have this problem of a medical condition being treated as demon possession and labeled by a word straight out of superstition. Not only that, but how literally are we to take Jesus’ words that if we have some faith we could tell a mountain to move and it will move? Even he never told a mountain to move! You want to give it a try?

Clearly Jesus was exaggerating, as he often did, in order to provoke some thought or reaction. And we do not know whether Jesus saw this boy’s condition as demon possession or connected to the moon’s phases. I like to think that all that talk of moon and demon were invented by the Gospel writers. But it all raises the question I started with: How should we read the miracle stories of the Gospels? Are they just miracle stories to be taken at face value, or are there further meanings and messages that can speak to us in our own situations? I believe there are such meanings and messages in all the miracle stories and healings, including the healing of the epileptic boy.

Mark tells the story of this healing in much greater detail than either Matthew or Luke. Two moments in Mark’s version warrant my attention today. (1) When Jesus asked the father how long his boy had been like this, the father answered, “From childhood.” (2) When Jesus challenged the father’s faith, the father cried out those famous words that still ring in our ears 2,000 years later: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The father cried out for himself, for his own lack of faith! The miracle story is about faith. Matthew focuses on the faith of the disciples who could not cure the boy. Mark focuses on the faith of the boy’s father! Much more important in my opinion, because the faith of the father is also our faith – or lack of faith.

Faith is not just a personal thing. The father’s faith – or lack of it – contributed to the power of the spirit that tormented his son. From childhood, this boy had been controlled by a spirit that silenced him. From childhood, the boy lived in an environment that kept him silent. The true demons, the true powers that Jesus confronts are those that make us despair that real change,real spiritual growth,  real transformation, are impossible. It’s not by accident that this healing takes place immediately after the transfiguration of Christ.

Raphael's painting of the Transfiguration includes the episode of the epileptic boy underneath. While Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, failed attempts are made to heal the boy down below. (click to enlarge)

Raphael’s painting of the Transfiguration includes the episode of the epileptic boy in the bottom half. While Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, failed attempts are made to heal the boy down below. (click to enlarge)

Back in the 1960s and 70s it was common to hear about the “silent majority.” Or, perhaps it’s more correct to say, the silenced majority. We are the silenced majority when we don’t have enough faith in the power of the transfiguration, which is the power to fill our lives and our planet with the holiness and light of Christ. We are the silenced majority when we believe that the forces for evil are just too strong for anyone to conquer. That was the father’s problem. And Jesus gave him voice for the first time: “I believe, help my unbelief!” That was the turning point. And it’s the turning point for every one of us too.

Be silent no more. We believe; Lord, help our unbelief!


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A Prayer

After completing my post “It is good to be here,” I found this beautiful prayer that so wonderfully complements what I wrote. It is from the website Oremus. May it enrich your spirit and heart today.

Lord of glory, it is good that we are here.
In peace we make our prayer to you.
In trust we confirm our faith in you.
Help us to set our faces steadfastly where you would go with us.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on your Church,
proclaiming your beloved Son to the world
and listening to the promptings of his Spirit.
May your Church be renewed in holiness
that may reflect your glory.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on the nations of the world,
scarred by hatred, strife and war,
and crying out to be changed by the touch of your hand…
May they hear the good news like a lamp shining in a murky place.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on those in need and distress,
suffering as your Son has suffered
and waiting for the salvation you promise…
May the day break and Christ the Morning Star
bring them the light of his presence.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, it is good if we suffer with you
so that we shall be glorified with you.
According to your promise bring all Christ’s brothers and sisters…
to see him with their own eyes in majesty
and to be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.

To him be praise, dominion and worship
now and for all eternity. Amen.

O God,
in the transfiguration of your Son
you confirmed the mysteries of the faith
by the witness of Moses and Elijah;
and in the voice from the cloud
you foreshadowed our adoption as your children
Make us, with Christ, heirs of your glory,
and bring us to enjoy its fullness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Christ Jesus,
the splendor of the Father
and the image of his being,
draw us to himself
that we may live in his light
and share his glory
now and for ever. Amen.


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It is good to be here!

The Christian churches have always looked for dogmas when reading the Bible, especially the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul. This is an essential task, but sometimes in our eagerness to turn everything into dogma we miss some more immediate meanings and messages. The transfiguration of Christ is an excellent example.

Transfiguration of Christ: Messenger of Life and Glory

Russian icon of the Transfiguration (click to enlarge)

The Orthodox Church celebrates the “Transfiguration of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ” as one of the great feasts of the church year. And it is indeed one of my own favorite days of the year, so rich with meaning and spiritual blessings. One of my greatest regrets is that in our local church on only a few years have we been able to observe this feast day with anything like the fullness of the liturgical wealth that is proper to it. On most years – including this year – we manage only with Liturgy; we’re not usually equipped to include a full Vespers and Matins. But that will change: there is a significant segment of our parish who desire a fuller experience of our Orthodox liturgical richness.

Not only is Transfiguration one of the great feasts of the church, it is also the inspiration for an important doctrine in the patristic tradition that the Orthodox Church has inherited and safeguards: the doctrine of deification (theosis). It is a beautiful part of our theology. It gives hope to the struggling Christian – hope of personal transformation and hope of universal blessedness. It is also the inspiration for much of our ecological consciousness. It is not by accident that our spiritual leader Bartholomew has been called the “green Patriarch.” Long before any Catholic Pope addressed humanity’s destruction of the environment, Patriarch Bartholomew called it “sin“! He has worked tirelessly to raise the consciousness of anyone who will listen to the dangers of global warming. In Pope Francis he has found a strong ally in this struggle, and the Pope often refers to Patriarch Bartholomew’s work in his recent ground-breaking encyclical, Laudato si’.

My article on this date last year, Life and Death on August 6th, touched a little on the theme of deification – in addition to the Hiroshima bombing (70 years ago today), which has become tragically and forever linked to this day. But are we missing an important part of the message of this event in the life of Jesus? It is wonderfully described in three of the four Gospels (the three that we call the Synoptic Gospels): Mark 9:2-10; Matthew 17:1-9; and Luke 9:28-36. All three Gospels quote Peter as saying to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here.” Peter offered to make three tents – τρεῖς σκηνάς – for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, so they could linger on the mountain. Mark and Luke comment that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. In other words, he was out of his mind to make such a suggestion! And Jesus indeed wanted nothing of Peter’s offer. As soon as Peter spoke, a cloud overshadowed them and the voice of God was heard saying, “This is my beloved son, listen to him!” And the vision came quickly to an end, and Jesus was alone again.

It was a moment in time – a moment when the divine glory visibly and tangibly revealed itself to a few chosen humans. It wasn’t a matter of a few elite men being treated to something they could brag about. Quite the contrary, they were instructed to say nothing about this experience until after Jesus had risen from the dead. Real transfiguration does not take place on a mountain; no, not even on Mount Athos! Real transfiguration happens in the maelstrom of human life, in the chaos that often accompanies our actions. It was chaos that waited for Jesus and the three disciples who were with him when they came down from the mountain of transfiguration (most fully described in Mark 9:14-27). The nine disciples who had not gone up the mountain with Jesus had tried to heal an epileptic boy and were unable. Jesus enters the scene of confusion and hurt egos and does what human ego could not do.

“Listen to him,” the voice from heaven told Peter, James and John on the mountain. He doesn’t need a tent, Peter! His body – his life among us – is a tent. John’s Gospel tells us that he ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν – literally, “he pitched his tent among us.” Jesus is a nomad in the desert of our lives. He pitches his tent with us and sits with us under the starry skies to teach us calm and trust in the chaos of our lives. We don’t build him anything – no tent, no house, no temple – he is the tent, the temple, our home. He is our transfiguration! “Listen to him,” the voice says to us also. It is good for us to be here – here, in this world, in this life, in our daily existence. We don’t need to go on a mountain high to experience the glory of God.

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Stavronikita Monastery (click to enlarge)

I’ve been on Mount Athos (so-called, “the Holy Mountain”) in northern Greece; twice. I met many holy men there (and many who were full of themselves). The one encounter that still lingers in my mind after 33 years is the conversation I had with the gate-keeper at Stavronikita Monastery in the summer of 1982: a tall, slender man of the most serene demeanor I have ever known, whose name I unfortunately now forget. We talked in the little room at the entrance of the monastery. We wondered at the beauty of the place and all the gifts of nature and spirit that God had provided for the monks’ existence.

The monk and I could repeat the words of Peter, “it is good to be here.” And it was good, an extraordinary feeling of being at peace with oneself, with nature, and with God. But the holy monk ended our conversation with the calm assertion that all this can be taken away by the Panagia, at any moment. The monks believe that Panagia (the popular name for the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos) is the protectress of the Holy Mountain, so it is naturally her prerogative to remove her protection and allow it to be destroyed. All this physical and historical treasure, all the spiritual wealth of Athos – it can all be taken away. And this venerable monk was totally at peace with that thought. It was the one moment in my life when I came closest to experiencing what Buddhists call ‘impermanence’. Nothing is permanent and we suffer the most when we try to cling on to something that is not meant to last or has come to its end.

Stavronikita Monastery in its magnificent setting (click to enlarge)

Stavronikita Monastery in its magnificent setting (click to enlarge)

It’s good to talk of transfiguration, and we Orthodox have beautiful beliefs about theosis/deification. It informs our understanding of salvation and our commitment to care for our planet and all life on it. But talk must lead to action. That’s why Jesus rejected Peter’s offer. Yes, it was good to be there, on the mountain of transfiguration, but the real challenge and blessing is to carry that goodness into our daily lives. Why were the disciples unable to heal the epileptic boy? Because it takes “prayer and fasting” Jesus told them [Mark 9:29; but some ancient manuscripts do not include “fasting”). Prayer and fasting remind us that transfiguration is most easily seen in the small things, the small victories we win by praying for God’s assistance and wisdom while fasting from our own pride and ambition. It is indeed good to be here. Right here, where I am, where you are! I see the light shining through you. Do you see mine? We are in the presence of Christ, and we “listen to him.”