Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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On the Way to Resurrection

Our Gospel reading today is the story of two resurrections. On the way to raise from the dead the daughter of Jairus, Jesus stopped to raise to life a woman who had no life…. Miracles are signs, they are reminders that Jesus is on the way to resurrection, and on the way once in a while he pauses to perform a miracle. But more significantly, he pauses on the way to resurrection to give new life, life with meaning… Today’s Gospel reading is not about miracles. It’s about the miracles that take place on the way to resurrection! [Hear the rest of the sermon here:]

 


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The Wine of Compassion

 

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The volume of Palamas homilies in my library

In 1334 Saint Gregory Palamas experienced a vision. In the vision he was carrying a vessel overflowing with milk, but the milk then turned into the finest wine. A youth appeared and rebuked Gregory for not sharing the wine with others and reminded him of the parable of the talents (cf. Matt. 25:14–30). Palamas interpreted the vision to mean that he should go from teaching simple moralistic messages (the milk) to the higher truths of faith (the wine).

In seminary classes with Fr. John Meyendorff I studied the theological writings of Gregory Palamas. But now, some 34 years later,  I’m becoming familiar with his homilies and they’re better than his theological writings. There is a homily by Gregory Palamas for this Third Sunday of Luke which, in my opinion, perfectly represents the lesson he learned from the vision. Indeed, my mouth dropped as I read this homily. Gregory Palamas is as fine a biblical preacher as I have ever encountered.

He begins his homily by quoting from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which leads him to go back to the Old Testament, to the Books of Kings, where he reflects on stories of Elijah and Elisha and compares their miracles to the miracle of Jesus that we heard today. Gregory has offered no milk to this point – only the wine of solid biblical exegesis! But the vintage of his wine grows with each paragraph. As he turns to today’s miracle story, he goes for broke:

“For the resurrection of the widow’s son serves as a pattern for the renewal of our mind. Our soul was widowed of the heavenly bridegroom on account of sin, and her mind was like her only son, who had … lost true life.” [Because of sin, we drift away from God,] “But when the Lord drew near and stood by us, He immediately renewed our mind and raised it up by His advent in the flesh. He did not, however, come to us in the beginning, but later, in the last times.”

Gregory saw the miracle of the widow’s son as a parable of spiritual renewal. But it’s a renewal reserved for the “last times” – in other words, our times. The “last times” is biblical language for the manifestation of Christ in glory. It’s not only a reference to the Second Coming. Palamas lived in the “last times” as we also live in the “last times”!

“Deaf dust, then, heard him calling into being things which have no being, heard him who upholds all things by the word of his power, heard not the voice of a God-bearing man, but of God made man.”

Gregory does not hesitate to see in this miracle an image of God’s creation of the universe from nothing. This is no ordinary miracle that can be preached in a superficial 5-minute sermon. Nothing Jesus ever did was ordinary, and to reduce the Gospel stories to trivial feel-good messages is to do a great injustice. Gregory learned from his vision not to do that.

Near the end of his biblical and theological explorations, Gregory addresses his listeners directly:

“Do you see how the Lord, pitying the widow who was mourning her son, did not just use consoling words to her, but helped her through His actions? As far as we are able, we too should do the same, and not be sympathetic to those who suffer just with words, but demonstrate our compassion for them through our deeds… For by our very nature we are bound to be compassionate and merciful one to another. If we observe God’s manifold mercies towards us, for which all He demands from us in exchange is to pardon one another, share with one another, and be charitable… how can we fail to render as an inescapable duty, forgiveness and mercy in practical ways to our brothers and sisters in need, as far as we can?”

Telling us to be compassionate sounds like the usual moralistic message preached by countless preachers. But no, this is not milk, this is the finest wine. Because Gregory says something truly profound: “For by our very nature we are bound to be compassionate and merciful one to another.” Gregory is fully aware of sin – but he is also aware that within every one of us is the original beauty – the original goodness – that God planted in us. By nature we can be compassionate and merciful to one another. Gregory presents this as self-evident, something not to be disputed or even proven! It should be self-evident to every Orthodox Christian. But we also need the reminder and the challenge: Can we live and act in harmony with the beauty that God has placed in us?

Every year this Gospel reading comes in October, the month of the feast of St. Demetrius. This saint was extremely popular in the later centuries of Byzantium. Gregory concludes his homily by bringing into his discourse the example of this saint from whose body flowed fragrant and sanctified myrrh. And the closing prayer of the homily invokes the saint:

By the intercessions of the Myrrhstreamer among martyrs, may we too, who share in the holy myrrh that flows from him, also see and partake then of that glory, by the grace and love for humankind of Jesus Christ, who is glorified in His martyrs and is God over all, to whom belongs all glory for unending ages. Amen.


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A Sabbath for the whole world

The great Moses mystically prefigured this present day when he wrote: “And God blessed the seventh day.” For this is the blessed Sabbath, this is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all his works…

Except he really didn’t rest. Though his body lay in a tomb, in spirit he descended into the realm of Death and liberated all humanity. It is the holiest of all Sabbaths, a Sabbath for the entire world, for all humanity, for all creation! Everything needs liberation from the inevitability of death and decay and the fear that is produced by those realities. Jesus descended into the lowest depths of human non-existence to make everything new! It is the new creation that is announced on this Holy and Great Saturday. God rested on the seventh day after the original creation (Genesis 2:2). Now, on this new seventh day, Jesus creates again: he creates new hearts and minds, new lives, and a new way of relating to God and to each other. Are you in? Are you experiencing the new creation?

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We began this Holy Saturday last night (Friday) with Matins and the singing of the Lamentations along with many other glorious and beautiful hymns. We processed outside the church in the darkness, carrying our lit candles, following the embroidered image of Christ in the tomb, the Epitaphios. Then, as the Epitaphios was held high aloft by four able-bodied men, we all went under it and re-entered the church. We all went under it as an act of renewal of our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. His labor is also our labor; his rest is also our rest. The new creation is universal or it is nothing. Saint Paul tells us plainly in his letter to the Romans:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation… itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

You see, we are one with each other, with all creation; and most wonderful and gloriously, with God through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the one Holy Spirit that adopts us as children of God.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)

And thus, with all this as the foundation, Paul is able to rise to eloquent heights with powerful affirmation:

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

This is the message of Holy and Great Saturday, even though we don’t read chapter 8 of Romans; we read chapter 6, verses 3-11, at the Liturgy on Saturday morning:

 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

This is the same Epistle passage that we read at every Baptism. Also at this Liturgy we sing the same hymn we sing at every Baptism: “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia.” All this reminds us that in the early centuries of the Church, this day and this evening, leading up to the announcement of Christ’s Resurrection, was the time for the baptism of new Christians. It is the celebration of new creation. Everyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ and is a new creation, Paul tells us. And as new creation, we share the destiny of all of God’s works. And that destiny is glory! Glory, not postponed to a future eternity, but glory that begins right here, in this life, when we allow ourselves to be transformed by the liberating power of Christ that comes to us through the Holy Spirit.

This is the day of Christ’s rest, the holiest of all Sabbaths, a Sabbath for all humanity and for all creation! But before we celebrate the new creation in the Liturgy of Holy Saturday, we remember the original creation through 15 readings from the Hebrew Bible (called “Old Testament” by the Church). These 15 readings have unfortunately been reduced to only 3 in modern Greek parish use, because it has been presumed that people don’t want to hear long stretches of the Bible. That has not been my experience. I believe that most Orthodox people are hungry for God’s Word and for serious explanation of God’s Word. Here in the United States, the Orthodox Church in America has preserved all 15 readings, believing in the genuine devotion of God’s people. Perhaps some day the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America will also appreciate the value of all these 15 readings and reinstate them in parish use. There is now no excuse, especially when we read the Bible in English translation that everyone can understand! Without these readings, our liturgical observance of Holy and Great Saturday is incomplete. Two of these readings, the 6th and 15th, conclude with sung portions that add to the joy of this beautiful day. The readings are worth exploring as a personal act of meditation on the meanings of this day:

  1. Genesis 1:1-13
  2. Isaiah 60:1-16
  3. Exodus 12:1-11
  4. Jonah 1:1-4:11
  5. Joshua 5:10-15
  6. Exodus 13:20-15:19
  7. Zephaniah 3:8-15
  8. 3[1] Kings 17:8-24
  9. Isaiah 61:10-62:5
  10. Genesis 22:1-18
  11. Isaiah 61:1-9
  12. 4[2] Kings 4:8-37
  13. Isaiah 63:11-64:5
  14. Jeremiah 31:31-34
  15. Daniel 3:1-23; Song of the Three: 1-66 with verses

By the end of the morning Liturgy we are already in the time of Christ’s Resurrection – which is why in Greece this Liturgy is popularly known as the First Resurrection, Η πρώτη Ανάσταση. Tonight at Midnight we will proclaim the Lord’s Resurrection openly and sing the joyful hymn, “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” But the Resurrection is already a reality, on this holiest Sabbath. Enter into the creative, renewing rest of your Lord! And then, say with all your heart: CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN!

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