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Blessed are the merciful

 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

μακάριοι οἱ ἐλεήμονες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ ἐλεηθήσονται

Today we enter the holy of holies of the Beatitudes. Everything so far has been preparation. Poor in spirit, meek, mourners, hungry and thirsty for justice – qualities that describe the disciple who follows Christ.

“But I will show you a still more excellent way,” Paul tells us today (1 Corinthians 12:31). That more excellent way is LOVE. “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

christ teaching“God is love,” (1 John 4:8). God is merciful throughout the Old and the New Testaments. So, Jesus tells us, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). He also said, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So clearly, perfection is to be merciful like God. This is the love that Paul describes. There is no love more patient than the love of God. There is no love that rejoices more in the good than God’s love. And so on. And finally, Love never ends. That is God’s love; it never ends. And that is the love that should be in us.

Blessed are the merciful….  To be merciful is to be like God.

In Orthodox theology we talk about deification. Monks spend a lifetime practicing austerity, prayer and self-denial in order to attain this thing we call deification (theosis). Some men and women monks have indeed  attained extraordinary heights of holiness; have indeed been deified.

But Jesus was not speaking to monks! Be merciful / Be perfect – as your Father in heaven is merciful / perfect. We can all be merciful – so we can all be like God. You don’t have to lock yourself in a monastery or be a hermit. Be merciful. Be loving. Mercy springs from love.

SOM05_Blessed_Are_the_Merciful_fsThose who are poor in spirit and meek; those who mourn for their own sins and for the sins of the world; those who are hungry and thirsty for justice – these are the people most prepared to be merciful. To be like God!

Don’t you see now what these Beatitudes are all about? Only God exists in beatitude, in total blessedness. The Beatitudes bestow on us the blessedness that belongs to God.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Receive mercy from whom? From God? From each other? This is the only beatitude that expresses mutuality. A relationship. It comes from the Hebrew.

Many words in Greek and in Hebrew to express the quality of mercy. For example, in Hebrew: raḥamîm – semitic root going back to ancient Akkadian to signify compassion, womb.

But the most important Hebrew word for “mercy” is ḥesed. It conveys the sense of a mutual relationship; faithfulness and loyalty. No one understood this mutual understanding of “mercy” better than Jesus, so here in the middle of the Beatitudes, he pronounced the only beatitude which expressed perfect mutuality. It is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I wonder if God gets tired of all our Kyrie Eleisons. Are we missing the first half of this Beatitude? The “merciful” part? Are we merciful, or do we only ask for mercy from God? Are we merciful so we can also receive mercy from one another? The Beatitudes are not only about God blessing us. They are about the life of God’s kingdom here, where we most need to be merciful to one another. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sermon+on+the+Mount


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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.

Stavronikita_Aug2006

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.”

 


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Gregory Palamas and the Theology of Deification

gregory-palamasThe second in a short series of Bible Study classes exploring the themes of the Sundays of Lent focused on St. Gregory Palamas, who is commemorated on the Second Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church (last Sunday, March 8th). Palamas is most associated with the Orthodox doctrines of deification and the distinction of essence and energies.

An audio file of the class is attached, together with a PDF version of the PowerPoint presentation. The files of the class are presented here primarily for the benefit of class participants. But others are welcome to listen to the audio and view the PowerPoint slides in the PDF version attached.

 

To access the PDF version of the PowerPoint presentation click on the link below. It should be viewed in conjunction with the audio file.

Gregory Palamas

 


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Simple words that make life possible

 

The lesson of our Gospel reading this morning is very simple: Say “thank you”!

The lesson is simple, but the consequences are profound. Our failure in this simple but essential act is at the root of so much of our woes. Consider only the news of the past week or so.

  • Fact: 2014 was the hottest year on record!
  • Fact: whole species of life are becoming extinct every day because of human activities.
  • Fact: terrorist attacks are now an everyday reality in most parts of the world.

And I can go on and on. But let these suffice from the headlines of the past week as a taste of our reality today.

Why are we destroying the planet? Why? Because we do not give thanks. Because we are not grateful for this marvelous gift that God has given us: Life on this amazing planet. We are not grateful, we take things for granted, we believe that we have the right to destroy whatever we want. And we destroy our interpersonal relationships because we take each other for granted. We are not grateful for each other. And that’s a sin. All failures to give thanks are SIN.

Have you noticed? Science fiction films are increasingly dystopian – the opposite of utopian, analogous to dysfunctional. The prefix dys– in Greek serves to destroy the good sense of a word or increase its bad sense. outopos as opposed to dystopos, etc.

Metropolis perhaps was the original film representation of a dystopian, bleak future. But think of most popular sci-fi or futuristic films.

  • Time Machine
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Terminator films
  • Matrix trilogy
  • The Hunger Games trilogy
  • Avatar
  • Oblivion
  • Ender’s Game
  • World War Z
  • Interstellar
  • And TV shows: The Walking Dead, for starters

All paint bleak pictures of the future. What is their message? Pessimism.

And yet, Christianity has a different view, though depending who you talk to and how you interpret certain passages of the Bible. There are Christians who believe the world is going to be destroyed, so it doesn’t matter to them whether we kill all life and whether we pollute or destroy the atmosphere. But many other Christians – including the Orthodox – believe something else.

“The whole earth is full of his glory,” Isaiah tells us. Jesus will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, Paul tells us in his letter to Philippians. He is the first-born of all creation and the head of a new humanity, Paul again tells us in his letter to Colossians. Even that most violent book, the Book of Revelation, so full of destruction and threats, reaches its climax not with a violent image but a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem descending to the transfigured, renewed earth, and with it God makes his eternal home among human beings on earth!! As the great Rumanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae said it, “The world is the work of God’s love and is destined to be deified.”

When Orthodox speak of deification/theosis, we don’t just mean an achievement of individuals. We mean more than that; we mean cosmic deification. Human beings cannot be separated from nature, from the cosmos. Saint Paul again, in Romans 8, tells us that all creation – all of nature, the cosmos – waits with anticipation for the liberation of the human children of God and will share the same glory as we!

Dear friends, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. What do we bring to the table? Faith, hope and love, those three great virtues that Paul names in 1 Corinthians. And the greatest of these is love, he tells us. But what is it that enables us to live by faith, hope and love? The ability to give thanks. How can you have faith, if you can’t say thanks to God for the gift of life and salvation? How can you have hope, if you can’t give thanks for the present? And how can you have love, if you can’t appreciate the importance of people in your life?

Martin-Luther-King-Day-Love-Quotes-1Words are important. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. I love the graphic of his image that is put together from words that he spoke or wrote. It’s brilliant, and it illustrates how important words are. Our words form the image that others have of us. Let words of thanks compose the image we present to the world.

Learn from the tenth leper and give thanks. It’s very simple, yet so profound and it affects everything. Imagine if 6 or 7 billion people in the world every day practiced the art of giving thanks! Who would kill? Who would abuse or take advantage of others? Who would be pessimistic about the future of humankind and the planet? Jesus lamented, why did only one return to give thanks? Where were the other nine? Let us pray that those words are not spoken about us too.


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Theology, our last hope

A few weeks ago I wrote an article here titled, “Ecology is an Orthodox word.” Today I came across an amazing little quote:

The proposed solution to our environmental problems are no longer a matter of saving a few watts, using less plastic or stopping an oil pipeline… It is our entire industrialized lifestyle that is obsolete…

The alternative is theology, not ecology – the birth of a new Golden Age which cultivates what Russian novelist Chyngyz Aitmatov calls the “divine spark.”

The issue is not man’s tools, but man’s spirit. (Rudolf Bahro)

What this quote is saying is that the issue is fundamentally theological, not technological. We can spin the word “ecology” any way we want, but in the final analysis it is a word that comes with so much baggage that it is easily dismissed by those who are stuck in a particular way of thinking. No matter how one spiritualizes the word “ecology” it is difficult for people to see it as anything other than a political or scientific slogan.

But “theology” is different. To be sure, most people reject theology as something antiquated, something irrelevant to our life today. Many people even see theology as something dangerous, something that divides people and even leads to violence and hatred. All these accusations are 100% accurate. Theology through the ages has done more harm than good. But not because theology itself is bad, but because people and churches and religions have used theological concepts as weapons of mass destruction rather than means of mass sanctification.

The light of deification touches everyone who recognizes the divine spark in us.

The light of deification touches everyone who recognizes the divine spark in us. (Click to enlarge)

And yet, despite the bad legacy of theology through the centuries, it is our only hope. At the heart of Orthodox theology is the concept of theosis, deification. This too has been reduced to triviality, especially by those who turned theosis into something that you work to attain through fasting and endless repetitions of the “Jesus Prayer.” Ascetic practices are helpful in other ways, and I don’t want to diminish their usefulness and importance. But deification is something different: it is the recognition and cultivation of the divine spark in us. Deification is only possible because God made us in God’s image and likeness.

The root of all our problems is the failure to recognize the divine spark in each other and the refusal to see every so-called political, economic, moral or technological problem as fundamentally a theological issue! This is the great secret that the powerful of this world want to keep from us, but which God wants us to know! Isn’t it time that religions started telling the truth, instead of aiding and abetting the wars and self-aggrandizing strategies of the rich and powerful? Isn’t it time we started seeing each other as what we truly are: deeply and beautifully gifted by God with the divine spark?

Deification is not limited to those who are officially recognized as saints by the Church.

Some of the deified men and women of the 20th century at New Skete Orthodox Monastery. Deification is not limited to those who are officially recognized as saints by the Church. (Click to enlarge)

We deify each other! It's always the neighbor who is most important for followers of Jesus.

We deify each other! It’s always the neighbor who is most important for followers of Jesus. (Click to enlarge)

Deification does not come from what we do, but from what we recognize. We deify each other by recognizing the divine spark in each other! I know this is not the way deification is usually presented in the Orthodox Church, but perhaps it might be more meaningful for some of us. Plus, I believe it is consistent with the teachings and practices of Jesus Christ when he walked the earth 2,000 years ago and lifted every person he met from the dirt to be his brother or sister. He taught that our relationship with God depends on how we view the neighbor, the other person, whoever that other person is. That’s the Jesus I believe in: the Jesus of the neighbor, the Jesus of freedom, exaltation and deification. Be exalted, O mortal, be lifted up. Find the divine spark, the divine life already in you. And recognize it in everyone else. That’s where theology begins, and it is our last hope.

Jesus lifts up everyone who comes to him.

Jesus finds the divine spark in us. Be lifted, rise up, he says.


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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