Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Desiring the Kingdom online book club

Over the course of the next few months I will be participating in a book club discussion hosted by Mystie at Simply Convivial. The book is called Desiring the Kingdom, by James K. A. Smith. I have really liked what I've read so far; it has given me a lot of food for thought and I am looking forward to sharing what has come to mind. I hope you will chime in with your thoughts and responses to what I will be sharing!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Wishing all my readers a blessed Christmas! 

Christ is Born!
Glorify Him! 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Sun of Righteousness

This chapter of The Winter Pascha is primarily about the coming of Christ as the bringer of Light to the world. Fr. Tom points out that God is called the "Sun" and "a light to those who sit in darkness" in the Old Testament. He also explains how the festival of the Lord's appearing celebrated the fact that Jesus is the Light of the world and offers to the pagans who kept the festival of the "Nativity of the Invincible Sun" the True Sun and thus the fulfillment of their festival.

He says,

It appears that the main hymn of the feast of Christ's Nativity in the Eastern Church was formulated as a conscious polemic against paganism, with a very pointed flaunting of the fact that those who formerly worshipped the stars, including the sun, were taught by a star to worship the True Sun... who gives, and is, the True Light. 

Here is the hymn itself:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Hast given rise to the light of knowledge in the world
For they who did worship the stars
Learned from them to worship Thee, O Sun of Justice,
And to know that Thou didst come from the east of the Highest
Glory to Thee, O Lord.

Every time we sing this hymn I am always awed by the words "For they who did worship the stars learned from them to worship Thee, O Sun of Justice". The magi, who spent their whole lives in the study of the stars and the movement of the planets were seekers of the Truth. They may not have realized that this Truth was a person but they relentlessly pursued it and sought answers. Their faith was rewarded, because the very heavenly bodies that they worshipped pointed to their own creator and showed these wise men the way beyond them to Him.

The Magi who had been led on their way by a divine star
Stood before You in wonder at Your marvelous birth;
And bearing gifts, they see the Sun
Who rose from the virgin cloud.

Let the people who sat in darkness 
See shining forth the Light that knows no evening,
Him whom the star once manifested
To the fire-worshipping Persian kings.*

There are people who believe that unless children are taught from specifically and purely Christian sources and texts that they will somehow be tempted to turn away from Christ and pursue "other gods". I believe that if we teach our children to love what is True, and to seek Truth, then we need not fear "non-religious" or "secular" books or sources. Those who pursue Truth and Wisdom and Virtue with their whole hearts will always find it.

Some people fault the Christian Church for establishing the feast of Christ's birth on the day of the "birth of the sun." Certain Christian sects even oppose the celebration. Orthodox Christians believe that it was an act inspired by the Holy Spirit. God has sent His Son into the world for its sanctification and salvation. 

Christ, by His coming, has renewed and sanctified all things. He brings fullness and fulfillment to those who came before and who had only a dim vision of the truth.

Our Savior, the Dayspring from the East,
Has visited us from on high;
And we who were in darkness and shadow
Have found the Truth
For the Lord is born of a Virgin!**

*A Matins hymn on the final day of the prefeast of the Nativity - Christmas Eve
**The hymn of light at Matins of the feast of the Nativity

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wednesdays with Words - More Tolkien*

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

From the Fellowship of the Ring when Gimli is greeted by the Lady Galadriel and she shows compassion for his sorrow:

And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly in the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer. 

From the same when Frodo stands upon the hill of Cerin Amroth in Lothlorien and can see the darkness of Mirkwood and Dol Guldur:

"In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought, but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not been discovered." 

Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them an made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain. 

*Maybe I should just quote the whole book and be done with it. Oh wait. I could get in trouble for that. ;-)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - Christ Comes to Restore the Image

I mentioned in my first post in this series the idea that "God became human so that we humans might become divine".* This chapter talks about that and about what it means to be made in the image of God.

To be made in the image and likeness of God is to be both a spiritual and material being. 

It is to be able to know and to do good, to be able to act and to care. 

It is, in a word,... to be able to be by God's grace and good will absolutely everything that God Himself is by nature. 

We were created to be like our Creator. When I stop to think about that, it is really mind-blowing. And it is very, very humbling because I can see how very much I am not like Him. My own self gets in the way and I often almost always fail to love as He loves; I put myself before others. Fr. Hopko says essentially the same thing:

The cause of all sadness and sorrow is that human beings have failed to be - and therefore endlessly to become - what God has made them to be. In the ultimate sense, they have failed to love. 

When I put my self first, I cannot really lay down my life for those around me. I allow the image of God in me to be distorted and twisted. If Christ had not come, I would have no choice but to continue moving further into darkness, away from the Light. I would have to pay the price of my failure to love.

But - Glory to God! He did come. And His coming makes it possible for the image to be restored.

This is the message of Christmas. There is a new Adam. There is a restored image of God. It is the restored image of the Image Himself, God's Son and Word, Jesus Christ. 

In Him all people can complete themselves as creatures made to be by God's grace all that God Himself is by nature. In Him all people can be human

You partook of human flesh, O Christ,
Offspring of the seed of Abraham.
You came to give grace upon grace,
Restoring Your image
And freeing us from corruption.
For the Father has sent You, the only-begotten Son,
As atonement for the world.**

*I have been informed that it was St. Athanasius who said this.

**From Compline of the third day of the prefeast of the Nativity, December 22.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Sunday of the Holy Forefathers and The Sunday Before Christmas

Two Sundays before Christmas is the commemoration of the Holy Forefathers - those righteous men and women who shone as examples through their faith in God even before the promised Messiah had come.

Let us offer praise to the fathers
Who shone forth before and during the Law;
With righteous minds they served the Lord and Master 
Who shone forth from the Virgin,
And now they delight in the unending Light. 

These were people who had faith in God and who firmly believed that He would fulfill His promise to send the Messiah. They lived their entire lives for Him. People like Moses, David, Noah, Hannah, Deborah, Esther, Daniel, Elijah; the list goes on and on.

God's holy people live for Him alone, for the living God and for His Word. Their reason for being is to praise God, not only in words but in deeds, and so to live. 

The holy forefathers and mothers, together with all their descendants, have chosen life. 

These men and women chose to believe and then they lived their choice. They lived their lives by acting on what they had understood in their hearts. They realized that to worship God was the only way to life and so they purposefully pursued God in everything. They faced hardship and sometimes persecution, but they persevered, even without having lived to see God's promise fulfilled.

For their faith was in the One who has acted in our time in fulfillment of the promises first made to them, and then through them to us, their spiritual children. Since this is so, we must imitate their faith, acquire their courage, and embody their power, so that we can in turn become the inheritors of their blessings. 

They made a choice and they faced all the consequences of that choice, both good and bad. The same choice lies before each one of us and God loves us so much that whether we choose Him or reject Him, He will not force us in the decision.

The consequence of Adam and Eve's disobedience to God was death. It was the result of their choice to turn away. But God is so loving that He was not content to leave it at that. He wants each of us to live. So He sent His Son.

Probably one of the most striking examples of choice in the Old Testament is that of Abraham.  God gave Abraham a son and then He asked Abraham to sacrifice him.Abraham went and prepared to do what God has asked, and when God saw that Abraham was willing to obey, even though it meant giving up the son he had waited so long for and who was so dear to him, God spared Isaac. Abraham chose Life - he chose God over his own beloved son - and God was pleased and honored that choice by allowing Isaac to live.

But when it came time for Jesus to fulfill His purpose here, there was no sparing of life: God loves us so much that He sacrificed His own Son for our sake that we might have life. Jesus chose to follow the will of the Father in order to bring us back to Him.

This is why we celebrate Christmas: we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ came to give us life through His death.

The celebration of the Winter Pascha is a celebration of Life in God's Word.

And now it is up to us to choose. We have seen God's promise fulfilled; therefore let us choose life with open hearts.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wednesdays with Words - St. John Chrysostom

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words

He left us on earth in order that we should become like beacons of light and teachers unto others; that we might act like leaven, move among men like angels, be like men unto children and like spiritual men unto animal men, in order to win them over, and that we may be like seed and bear abundant fruits. There would be no need for sermons if our lives were shining; there would be no need for words if we bore witness with our deeds. There would be no pagan if we were true Christians. 

St. John Chrysostom

(I copied this quote for myself many years ago, and unfortunately I cannot tell you now which of his homilies or writings it came from. If anyone happens to know I'd love to find out!)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Faith of the Three Young Men

This chapter of The Winter Pascha is about the faith of the three young men who were thrown in the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. (If you aren't familiar with this story, found in chapter 3 of the book of Daniel, you can read a summary here).

When they are thrown into the fire, they are saved by God, who "turns the flame into a dewy breeze" and is present with them in the fire itself. This in itself is remarkable, to be sure, but Fr. Hopko's focus here is not so much the miracle that occurred, but the faith of the young men.

The three young men who were confronted by the wicked king of Babylon did not claim that the true God would save them from death in the flames. They surely believed that He could, but they did not insist that He would! 

They bore witness to the fact that their God does whatever He wants. It was none of their business what he would or would not do...

...no matter what God did, they still, under whatever circumstances, would not worship the idol that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 

This kind of faith is the kind of faith that I want to have. It is the kind of faith that says Thy will be done, in spite of what I might think is best. This is the kind of faith that is ready to endure suffering, horrific torture, and even death in order to remain true to the True God.

...real faith and genuine trust in God makes no deals and no claims. It is completely and totally ready, as was shown supremely in Jesus, to accept whatever the Father wills and provides, knowing that His faithful ones will never be put to shame. 

Sometimes, when I read the lives of the saints and I read about those martyrs who died horrible deaths for the sake of Christ, my pride whispers to me that I would be the same as they were; that I would not deny Christ for any reason; that I would be willing to die for Him. Then I wake up and look at myself and see the sorry truth: I don't even have faith enough to keep me from worrying about small things or to accept the little trials that I face. I certainly would not have the faith to stand and submit to torture and death!

But what if I could have faith like that? What would change if I could get rid of my own greatness and allow myself to accept with gladness anything that comes my way? What would life look like if I could be like the three youths and know with my whole being that what God wants is always, always better than anything I could ever dream up - even if it means pain and suffering for the time being? This kind of faith trusts Him always, no matter what He decides.

This is what Christ did when he came. With all His power and His might, He submitted to the Father's will and allowed Himself to die a horrible and shameful death. He came to us, in order to die for us, in spite of the pain and humiliation. And after submitting and passing through the awfulness He was raised up and glorified. He was not shamed any longer, but ascended to sit in glory at the right hand of the Father.

For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”  (Romans 10:11)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Meditations on The Winter Pascha - The Feast of Saint Nicholas

O holy father, 
The fruit of your good deeds has enlightened and delighted the hearts of the faithful.
Who cannot wonder at your measureless patience and humility?
At your graciousness to the poor?
At your compassion for the afflicted?
O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well, 
And now wearing your unfading crown, you intercede for our souls.*

This hymn is heard at the vespers service for the Feast of St. Nicholas which is celebrated on December 6th. Fr. Tom talks in this chapter about who Saint Nicholas really was and why the memory of him has been so strong through the ages. He says that all that we know about Saint Nicholas and all the legends and stories that have sprung up around his name point to one thing: he was a good man.

The extraordinary thing about the image of Saint Nicholas in the Church is that he is not known for anything extraordinary. He was not a theologian and never wrote a word, yet he is famous in the memory of believers as a zealot for orthodoxy... He was not an ascetic and did no outstanding feats of fasting and vigils, yet he is praised for his possession of the "fruit of the Holy Spirit"...He was not a mystic in our present meaning of the term but he lived daily with the Lord and was godly in all of his words and deeds.

In a word, he was a good pastor, father, and bishop to his flock, known especially for his love and care for the poor. Most simply put, he was a divinely good person. 

The point being made here is that true goodness is possible with the help of Christ. Because He came to earth, He made it possible for us to go with Him to heaven.

The Messiah has come so that human beings can live lives which are, strictly speaking, humanly impossible. He has come so that people can really be good

Saint Nicholas shows us what it is to be transformed in this life; he shows us what it looks like to be a follower of Christ. He lived a life which could only be lived through and in the grace of God. May we look at his example and also strive to live as he did.

*from Vespers on the Feast of St. Nicholas

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: Tolkien Again

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen, 
of meadow-flowers and butterflies 
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer 
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think 
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think 
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think 
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet 
and voices at the door.

A poem by Bilbo, said when Frodo is preparing to leave Rivendell with the Fellowship. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - Seeing They Do Not See

As we saw in the last chapter Saint Andrew chose to come and to see who Jesus was. This chapter explores the question of those who come, but who do not see and remain blind to the truth. Fr. Tom points out that Jesus has already told us, through the Prophet Isaiah, that seeing is a matter of a person's will.

The reason, [Jesus] says, is that they love darkness rather than light because their actions are wicked (see Jn 3:19). The light exposes the truth. It allows the reality of things to be seen. The wicked flee reality. They despise the light. They prefer their own blindness, and the delusions that they themselves create. 

I certainly can't speak for others, but I find myself guilty of this more often than I'd like to admit. I choose not to see my own sins and prefer to live in darkness, putting the blame on someone or something else and not on myself. It is easier and more comfortable to look at what is wrong with others than to acknowledge that there is something wrong with my own self.

[The wicked] want to see themselves not as they really are, but as they wish themselves to be. And, together with this, they want a version of others which confirms their own opinions of themselves. And, most especially, they want an image of God that they can handle and manipulate to serve their deluded and illusory purposes for their own profit and pleasure. The lovers of darkness, therefore, are fundamentally liars and idolaters. They are liars abut themselves and about God. They make their own gods, and then fashion themselves in the images and likenesses of the gods they have made. 

It is so uncomfortable to look at myself and really see what is there. In fact, it's much more than uncomfortable - it's truly painful. It is painful to admit my faults and my weaknesses. It hurts to see that I have hurt those that I love. It causes great sorrow to know that I sometimes bring sorrow to others.

But as painful as it is to truly see, I would rather see and know the truth than continue to live in darkness and chaos. I want to be willing to bear what I must if only I can come into the light and gaze upon Christ. The choice remains with each one of us; we are never forced into it. We must decide to either stay as we are, living in delusion, or to come and to see and be transformed by Truth.