Tag Archives: John Behr

A new heart of mercy and love

Readings for the day: 1 Cor. 8:8–9:2; Matt. 25:31–46.

 

Santa Maria Assunta Torcello Angel Detail

Last Judgment (detail), 12th-13thc, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.

 

Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

 

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

 

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my “god.”

 

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.

 

The freedom that Paul had in mind was even more radical: he was talking about the freedom of eating food offered to idols in pagan temples. Eating food that has been offered to idols… ! This is the paradigmatic expression of religious devotion; it is what we do, when we gather together as the body of Christ, to partake in his body. So when Paul says that we are free to eat such food, it is strong language indeed. We can only do this, as he points out, knowing that the idols don’t really exist, so that there is therefore nothing to prevent Christians from eating such food.

 

But he warns us, if our eating such food causes our brothers a scandal, and perhaps leads them astray—so that they also eat such food, while still thinking that idols are somehow real—then we are guilty of misusing our freedom to the destruction of others. We are responsible for having injured the one for whom Christ died.

 

As we move ever closer towards Great Lent, then, we are reminded that we are totally free, with the proviso that what we do must be for the building up, rather than the destruction, of the body of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

Having been confirmed in our freedom (and been warned what a dangerous liberty it is), and having heard, over the last two Sundays (the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son) of God’s patience and inexhaustible compassion—that he is ready to receive every sinner who returns to him—we are now reminded in today’s Gospel of the other side of this awesome truth: that the God who receives sinners does so as their judge. As we heard, when Christ comes again in his glory, sitting upon his throne, he comes as our judge.

 

 

We enter Great Lent, therefore, as a period of preparation for the return of our Savior, waiting for him, as we also do on the first days of Holy Week, waiting for the one who will return unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, to take us as he finds us.

 

In both cases we are presented with the humiliated Christ, the man of sorrows—the Bridegroom. In the words of today’s Gospel, Christ identifies himself precisely with the lowly, the outcast and the unwelcome: the hungry, the sick, the destitute, the stranger, the one in prison. These are his brethren, and what we do to the least of these, we do to Christ himself.

 

In all of this, Christ is not a judge in the sense of someone who takes records, evaluates the evidence, and then pronounces a sentence. Definitely not! God bestows his bounty upon the sinners and the righteous alike. Rather it all depends upon our state, how he finds us. How we respond to him then will depend upon the habits that we’re developing even now. It is this that will determine whether we become a vessel of his glorification or of his judgment.

 

The judgment that we bring upon ourselves is one that we are working out even now—in all our dealings with others, here and now, every day and every moment. Notice that nothing particularly great is expected of us (and nothing is said about fasting): we are presented with the poor asking for food, some bread—not a banquet; others asking for a roof, a piece of clothing, some cold water, a visit—nothing much, and certainly nothing which is not in our power to do.

 

In all of this, if we harden our hearts towards others, if we fail to respond to the opportunities which present themselves, then we are already passing judgment on ourselves. If we cannot receive him in his brethren, then we will no longer know how to receive Christ. When Christ returns in glory, we will be told to depart into the eternal fire—fire which is not prepared for us, but for the devil himself.

 

If we cannot respond to our neighbor in need, then the very glory and splendor of Christ when he returns will also be too much for us: for it is the same Christ in each case, even if we do not recognize him.

 

But such lack of compassion is not our proper inheritance; this is not how we were created to be.

 

It is striking that those who did open their hearts and their goods and time to others were also surprised at Christ’s words: “When did we do this to you?” They were not serving the poor out of a sense of duty, or hoping for a reward, but simply acting out of love, and in so doing acquiring a new heart of mercy and love, a heart which opens them up to receive the glory and splendor of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

 

This is the inheritance which has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Seeing God in one’s neighbor and responding in a Christ-like fashion—this is what it is to be in the image of God, living in the kingdom or paradise of God.

 

Let us pray that we may prepare ourselves for the approaching Lenten season, and also, more generally, that we be able to see every moment of our life as being under the judgment of the returning Christ, for we assuredly are.


 

cross_stands__52149-1406224506-300-300For more homilies by Fr. John Behr, check out The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year. Emphases added.

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The turning point of time

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on December 25, 2015.

 

Today, at this feast, we stand at the turning point of time.

 

angelsNot simply another turning point, as the world spins on its axis, or rotates around the sun, but the turning point of time itself; the moment from which we measure all time. And more: it is a turning point in the heavens themselves, opening towards us on earth, so that we can hear the angels singing the praise of God, if we have the ears to hear them, not our usual physical sense of sound, which at this time of year is bombarded by all sorts of noise, some of it claiming to be religious – but usually the religion of consumption; but with a purified hearing.

 

It is a turning point at which strange things happen.

 

According to an old tale, told by another story teller, in the night between Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas day, all the animals can speak, though few hear them or know what they say; Simpkin, the cat, as he wanders through the streets looking for mice to eat, can hear them chattering away and singing; but he was not admitted into their conversation; for he had hidden some twist and was prowling for mice to eat, as his master lay sick in bed, muttering to himself: no more twist.

 

That nature is overturned on this night is indeed an old idea. In the second century prayer for midnight, we hear:

 

In this hour every creature hushes for a brief moment to praise the Lord; stars and plants and water stand still at that instant; all the hosts of angels ministering to Him, together with the souls of the righteous, praise God.

 

And from the same period, we hear, in the Protoevangelium of James, how Mary and Joseph also stop, when Mary feels the stirrings of the babe in her womb ready to be born. They find a cave and Joseph goes off to find a midwife:

 

shepherdBut I, Joseph, was walking and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. …

Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still … I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking.

Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.

 

As Christ is born, creation stands still—strange things happen and nature is overturned, the heavens themselves are turned, and we can, if we listen, hear the angels praising (and the mice singing).

 

It is in this midnight silence, Wisdom says, that the firstborn Egyptians were slain by the destroying angel, so that the firstborn of God, Israel, might be set free from slavery, when the Word descended from heaven. While peaceful silence enveloped all things, and night was in the middle of its own swift course, from heaven, from the royal throne, your all-powerful Word, leapt as a stern warrior, into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your irrevocable command as a sharp rapier; standing, it filled all things with death and while it touched heaven, it stood on the earth.

 

This act, in silence, is what we celebrate today, as we too are set free from slavery, when the firstborn Son of God, Christ himself, is born from the Virgin, uniting heaven and earth, and we, in the midst of the death he casts upon the earth, are brought back to life.

 

Three mysteries of God, St Ignatius says, were worked in silence: the virginity of Mary, the birth of Christ, and the Cross. They were shrouded in silence, hidden from this world and its rulers, so that, when creation is silent, God can work, for Christ is the Word emerging from this silence. And it is this silence that St Ignatius asks of the Roman Christians, so that he too might follow Christ in his Passion, and so become a word of God, as did all those martyrs we celebrated in the days leading up to this birth of Christ; for as St Ignatius also says, Christ, the head, is not born without his body also being born.

 

It is this silence, then, that we need, if we are going to hear the angelic ranks singing in amazement today, and to join in their hymns of praise. This is something we will never hear, or be part of, if we remain on the prowl, as was Simpkin, looking to fill our stomachs by eating others, all the while keeping for ourselves what others need. Only when he repented, and brought to his master that which he had held back, only then was the magnificent garment that the mice had been working on only then was it able to be completed.

 

Christ’s body, miraculously woven in the womb of the Virgin, as she spins the thread, the twist, is today present on earth. That it weaves together heaven and earth is possible only because the heavens themselves are opened when they turn today, and when they are opened we can see the end to which the whole of creation (animals as well) are working.

 

Let us not say, then, that we have no more twist, nothing to contribute to the weaving of the glorious body of Christ, but instead give glory, thanksgiving, and praise for all that God has done for us today, giving of ourselves, giving our very selves, in return for truly today, Christ is born!

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Ayios Nicolaos tis Stegis, Nicosia, Cyprus

 

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.

 

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Let it be

“Today the Theotokos, the temple that is to hold God, is led into the Temple and Zacharias receives her… Let us cry aloud with Gabriel: Rejoice, you who are full of grace, the Lord is with you, he who has great mercy.” So we sang at Vespers last night. The one who is to become the temple and palace of God is led into the temple.

 

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Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple (Chora Church, 14th c, Istanbul)

 

In the readings last night, we heard how, of old, the tabernacle was constructed according to the command of God as the place where the ark of testimony was to be placed, covered with a veil, illumined by candlesticks and lamps, with incense offered on a golden altar, and with the tabernacle and all the vessels anointed with the oil of anointing.

 

We heard that when it was finished, the tabernacle was overshadowed by the cloud and filled with the glory of the Lord, so that no one, not even Moses, was able to enter the tent.

 

Now, today, the Theotokos is led into the temple of the Lord, to preach Christ to all, and to become the temple, the dwelling place of the glory of God, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit; and not only the dwelling place, as the tabernacle of old, but the one who gives birth to God, so that in her and through her, in and through a human being, the glory of God radiates to the world.

 

All aspects of the temple point to her; she is their fulfillment. She is the jar containing the manna, the ark of the covenant, the rod of Aaron which budded forth, and all the other images we use to praise her. As we sang: “The written law has passed away and vanished as a shadow, and the rays of grace have shone forth at your entry into the temple of God, O undefiled Virgin Mother.” All the Law and the Prophets point to her; the reality has come and the shadows have passed away.

 

She is, as we sing, the fulfillment of the dispensation of the whole economy, indeed, of the whole of creation. As St Nicodemus put it: the world was created for Mary… and she for Christ. The whole world was created for the one who would say, “Let it be!”—the one who gives space to God as his temple and so allows the creator to enter his creation.

 

The tabernacle made by hands finds its fulfillment in the temple that is Mary, and through her, God enters this world to dwell amongst us, no longer hidden in the inner sanctuary in the man-made temple in Jerusalem, but dwelling among us, and now us in him.

 

She is the gate, as Ezekiel says, through which the Lord has entered the world: “O Gate of the Lord, unto you I open the gates of the temple,” Zacharias exclaims. “I now know and believe that the deliverance of Israel shall come to dwell openly in our midst.”

 

For this deliverance to come about, however, we must go one step further into the temple. The epistle reading spoke of how the priests would go into the outer tabernacle to perform their ritual services, but the high priest alone would go into the Holy of Holies only once a year, to offer blood for himself and the errors of the people.

 

The apostle continues: Christ himself, the High Priest of the good things to come, entered the greater and more perfect tabernacle, the one not made by human hands, entering once for all, offering not the blood of animal sacrifices, but his own blood, so securing an eternal redemption for all.

 

It is by his self-sacrifice that Christ enters this more perfect tabernacle and does so once-for-all… so that the gate remains shut: “It shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore it shall remain shut,” says Ezekiel.

 

His sacrifice is once and for all—for all people and for all time. It is an eternal sacrifice and an eternal redemption. The gateway remains shut, but salvation is available for all.

 

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Blessing by the Priests (Chora Church, 14th c, Istanbul)

 

Today, then, as the Theotokos enters the temple, preaching Christ to all, she becomes the one through whom the glory of God enters this world, by being the gateway through which the Lord enters the more perfect tabernacle, offering his eternal sacrifice and being the High Priest of the good things to come. She is the bridge, the passageway or the exodus from creation to recreation and redemption.

 

The Temple is both the place where God enters the world and the place where the sacrifice is made; and these two aspects—the womb and the tomb—cannot be separated.

 

For all this to happen, of course, Mary had to say: “Let it be!” Not only “Let the power of the most high overshadow me,” but also, “Let the sword piece my heart, too.”

 

Yet these words of Mary—“Let it be!”—are glaringly absent from the hymnography for this feast. The reason for this is because, today, as we celebrate this feast, she is our “Let it be!” She is the completion or culmination of creation as it—as we—respond to the Word of God.

 

Mary is not simply brought into the temple; she is offered there, she is sacrificed by our “Let it be!” Joachim and Anna, the hymns said, “rejoice exceedingly, for they have offered to God, as a three-year old victim of sacrifice, the Queen without blemish.” Mary is the pure and blameless sacrifice to God on behalf of all human beings, “the dove without blemish and the ewe-lamb of God without spot.” This is what it means to say “Let it be”!

 

For our high calling, to be conformed to the image and likeness of God, for this to be realized, we too need to be able to say for ourselves: Let it be!

 

God does not enter into this world except by our offering him space, not a geographical space somewhere else in the world, but our own place—ourselves and our own time, today—the sacrifice of our own sense of self, our attempts to construct our own identity, to set limits and boundaries on how much we are prepared to accept, to say “let it be,” but only on my terms.

 

No! Our own terms need to be sacrificed if we are to say: Let it be! We must sacrifice ourselves, becoming ourselves temples of God, sacrificing ourselves on the altar of our heart, so that he can now be present in us and through us; we must decrease so that he might increase.

 

This has been accomplished in our offering of the virgin child Mary. In a month’s time we will sing of how we offer her at Christ’s Nativity and for his Nativity; today we offer her as the temple and the Gate of the Lord, so that High Priest can, by his own once-for-all sacrifice enter the Holy of Holies. We too, even we, can be refashioned—pass through from the creation to the new creation, but only if we can say for ourselves, “Let it be!”

 

As we present the Theotokos into the temple today, saying to God “Let it be,” let us not misunderstand what it demands of us as ourselves temples of God. May we have the strength to say with her: “Let it be!”

 

cross_stands__52149-1406224506-300-300For more homilies by Fr. John Behr, check out The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year.

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Known by a name

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on Sunday, October 25, 2015. The Gospel reading for the day can be found here.

We are so familiar with most of the readings that we hear in Church on Sunday mornings, especially those that recount a memorable parable, that we rarely pay attention to what it might say to us—we think we already know.

So, we heard today the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; and as soon as we hear the first words “There was a rich man”, we think we already know what the parable is going to be about: that the rich are going to have a hard time getting into heaven, while the poor, having had a hard time of it in this life, will get in much more easily.

And then we are tempted to identify ourselves with the poor; after all, even if we are not as poor as some, we certainly are not as rich as others! There are many others who are much richer than we are, and they are certainly going to have a hard time of it. Even if we are not as destitute as Lazarus, we still find ourselves in more hardship than we would prefer—we are not as rich as we would like to be.

But if we pay closer attention, we will see that it is not simply about objective riches/poverty, but about attachment.

Rich Man in the Flame. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Rich Man in the Flame. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

It is striking that in the parable, the rich man is not named—he is simply known as one who is clothed in purple (a royal color), fine linen and who ate well. He is not named; as it says in the Psalms, about those who do not fear God: “I will not make mention of their names with my lips” (15.4). The rich man is not known by name, but is known rather by his possessions. And they are possessions which he has not used for the benefit of others, in a philanthropy, extending God’s own philanthropy—love of mankind; rather they are used for his own adornment and luxurious living.

Known by his possessions, the rich man is in fact possessed by his possessions.

And this is the reason he will have a hard time when he passes on from this life: it is not simply that he has had great possessions, but that he is their possession—they own him. He has not used his wealth for the benefit of others, but been too attached to what he has.

On the other hand, the poor man is named—Lazarus. Yet it is not simply his poverty which grants him a place in the kingdom, but that he has endured the situation into which he was born without complaint. He did not spend his life moaning about it, but rather takes an attitude like Job.

For him to have complained about it, would be like the rich man’s attachment to his possessions: as paradoxical as it might seem, the poor man would have become attached to his poverty—and this in turn would have kept his heart back in this world, and caused him great torment.

Poor Lazarus in Abraham's Bosom. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Poor Lazarus in Abraham’s Bosom. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

What the contrast between the rich man and Lazarus sets before us, as with Christ’s others words about material wealth, mamon, and our heart being where our treasure is, what all this presents to us is the challenge to be detached from the things of the world and to place all our hope, trust and love in God.

To live in such detachment, of course, requires faith. After all, it is not the evidence of our eyes that will persuade us that we can in fact give more generously to the poor than we like to think; the evidence of our eyes will always be to the contrary—I will be visibly poorer if I do so. The evidence of our eyes is not enough, and so the parable concludes with Abraham saying that even if someone should return from the dead—providing visible evidence—it would not be enough to persuade; if they do not already believe Moses and the prophets, no visible proof will suffice.

Moses and the prophets, of course, direct us to Christ, as the eternal and unchanging Word of God. And as we heard in the epistle, it is by faith in him that we are made righteous, not by anything that we can do of ourselves. In fact, as Paul said, in our desire to be righteous in him, we will be found to be sinners—that is, we are found to be living without the law, outside of the law. It is no longer a comprehensive system of regulations that we have to fulfill to appease our deity (however much we might tend to view religion in that manner). Rather if the righteousness of God is revealed in his crucified Son, then what is demanded of us is that we be, as Paul said, crucified with him.

And we have learnt from today’s parable a concrete way in which this is lived out is through our detachment from all worldly things; a detachment, not a despising; a detachment which enables us to see all things as the good gifts of God and frees us to use all things for the benefit of others—so that all things are indeed good gifts from God (not merely in word, but in reality), and so that we are not simply known by our possessions, or our achievements, but are known by a name.

And perhaps even more: as Paul concluded, if we are crucified with Christ in this way, then we no longer live, but Christ lives in us. We are called to be Christ’s own presence in this world; let us pray that we have the strength and courage to respond to this upward call of God in Christ, leaving behind all earthly cares to offer a sacrifice of peace and love.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.

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Behold: Dying, we live!

Pascha approaches: we should reflect once again on this crux of our faith, orient ourselves anew by the perspective that it offers, and enter afresh into its mystery.

Man of Sorrows. Double sided icon; Byzantine Museum, Kastoria, Greece; Byzantine, second half of the 12th century.

Man of Sorrows. Double sided
icon; Byzantine Museum, Kastoria,
Greece; Byzantine, second half of the 12th century.

By his death, his voluntary self-offering in love for us, Christ has destroyed death and granted us life. We say such words so often, that we frequently become immune to the stumbling-block and scandal that they present, and so overlook their implications for us. By dying, as a human being, Christ has shown us what it is to be truly divine: Lordship manifest in service, strength in weakness, wisdom in folly. If he had shown us what it is to be divine in any other way (acting, for instance, as a superhuman god), we could have had no share in him and his work. The fact is that we are all going to die, whether we like it or not. The only question is how we are going to die? Clinging to all that we think is ours, our own life and possessions, our own status or merit? Or following him on his path to Golgotha, laying down our life in love for him and our neighbors? Living, yet still dying, or dying to live.

The Witnessing Body

By his action, by his shed blood and broken body, Christ has called us to be his Church. We like to use the language of the Church triumphant, the glorious body with a mission to bring the whole world within its fold and so manifest the Kingdom of God upon this earth. And indeed this is our mission: Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit . But we must never forget that the glory of this body is one that is only seen by those whose sight has been trained to look upon the cross and see the Lord of glory. As St Athanasius put it, the more that the Lord is persecuted and humiliated, the more his glory and divinity is manifest … to those that have eyes to see.

St. Blandina.

St. Blandina.

And this continues, he affirms, in those who now constitute his body, those who take up the faith of the cross and willingly submit themselves to death, that he might live in them. Such a one was Blandina, the slave girl, the epitome of weakness in the ancient world, who was hung on a stake to be eaten by wild beasts. Spectators in the stands only saw another seemingly misguided fool dying for their entertainment, but those who struggled alongside her in the arena “saw in the form of their sister the one who was crucified for them.” Dying, Christ lives in her, so that she now lives eternally.

The Scandalous Body

Let us never forget that this is the glory of the body of Christ, the Church, in this world, this is the life we profess to live, this is the inauguration of a kingdom not of this world. As we endeavor to extend this kingdom, we must of course strive to ensure that our behavior does not provide a scandal or stumbling block to others. At a minimum, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards of the society in which we live. But we must equally not fall into the error of supposing so doing is enough for the body of Christ to be in “good order”: as the body of Christ, we will be a laughing stock, held in scorn and derision –  let us never forget this, and let it always be for the right reason!

Troubles such as those that currently beset the Church have done so from the beginning, and they can easily become an occasion for loss of faith, especially if we set our stock solely on the “good order” of this world. Indeed, one of the desert fathers of old warned that in days to come one will scarcely find faith left on this earth, and that the struggle to keep the faith in such times will be greater than any ascetic feat performed of old. If such troubles can be an occasion for despair, they can also be a powerful impetus to make sure that our focus is properly oriented, that our faith is in Christ alone.

We live straining towards the future, the coming Christ, nourished by the hope that he offers. Let us not then be weighed down by the cares of today, for they too will pass; let us instead prepare ourselves for the still greater struggles ahead. But we can only do this if our sights are truly set on the Kingdom inaugurated by the Passion and manifest in those, in us, who by dying live.

Let us Forgive all in the Resurrection

Forgiveness is at the heart of the mystery of the Resurrection: “let us forgive one another so that we may cry aloud, ‘Christ is Risen!’” We cannot claim to be Christians, to dare to greet one another with this  paschal greeting, unless we do so with a forgiving heart. But the depths of this forgiveness is not plumbed if we think that this means the repentance of others and our forgiveness of them, resulting in a peace, or rather a truce, that suffices us. Christ came to call the sinners, so that if we would be amongst the called, this is how we must regard ourselves, the chief, indeed, amongst the sinners.

The Embrace of Sts. Peter and Paul, Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos, 12th century

The Embrace of Sts. Peter and Paul. Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos, Greece, 12th century.

We must be like the apostles: as Saul, confronted by Christ asking “Why are you persecuting me?” so becoming the great apostle Paul; as Peter, who before resuming his calling as a disciple, had to confess his love for Christ three times, standing by the burning coals, as he had denied Christ three times, warming himself by the burning coals, which harkens back to the vision of Isaiah who, seeing the Lord sitting upon the throne hymned by the seraphim, lamented “Woe is me, for I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips,” and so received the burning coal taken from the altar, hearing the words “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin forgiven.”

Approaching Christ in this way, as ourselves repentant and seeking forgiveness, our hearts will be broken so that the love and forgiveness of Christ can flow through us to others. Then we will be able to receive, from the same altar and with the same words of forgiveness, the medicine of immortality, so that dying we also may live.

Unless a Seed Falls in the Ground and Dies

We are called to take up the Cross, to die with Christ, to become the one body of Christ. Our divisions are truly a scandal of our own making. Whether they are between persons, within an ecclesial body, or between ecclesial bodies, each and every one of us is responsible for our failure to make Christ present through our witness, our martyria, to a world that is increasingly alienated from God and increasingly thirsting for Christ. Clinging on to that which we value, whether our own dignity confronting that of others, a strife-creating indignation within our ecclesial bodies, or our pride in the distinctiveness of our own ecclesial body and the hierarchies of a long-gone era, we are like the seed that remains alone, rather than dying to bear fruit. If we are to be Christ’s one true Body, we must follow him by dying to everything that separates us from him, all that belongs to this world rather than to the Kingdom, and hold ourselves open to wherever he may lead us. Dying, then, we might begin make Christ manifest by how we live as his one body.

We are on the threshold of the Pascha of the Lord. This is not simply an annual event, that we might forget once we stop singing that “Christ is Risen!” It is rather the eternal mystery, present at every moment – every moment, that is, that we do indeed take to heart its proclamation and by dying, live.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is Dean and Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His early work was on issues of asceticism and anthropology, focusing on St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. After spending almost a decade in the second century, Fr. John began the publication of a series on the Formation of Christian Theology, and has now reached the fifth and sixth centuries. He has recently completed an edition and translation of, and introduction to, the remaining texts of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He has also published a synthetic presentation of the theology of the early centuries, focused on the mystery of Christ. He is also a passionate cyclist, often rescheduling family events around the Tour de France. Fr. John’s wife, a Tour de France enthusiast and armchair cyclist, teaches English at a nearby college, and their two sons and daughter are being taught to appreciate the finer points of French culture: the great “constructeurs” of the last century, Le Grande Boucle, and … cheese.

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Meeting of the Lord and Zacchaeus

A homily delivered in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple and Zacchaeus Sunday (Sunday, February 2, 2014).

Giotto, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, 1306, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Giotto, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, 1306, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Today, as we celebrate the meeting of Christ and the righteous Simeon and Anna, in the temple, we come to an end of a series of feasts that have taken us through the darkness of the long and cold winter nights: a series of feasts bringing out different aspects of God’s search or outreach to us: the Word becoming flesh in the small dark cavern, in the depths of the earth, the manifestation of God to us, through the passage through the waters.

And now, in obedience to the Mosaic Law, forty days after his birth, Christ, the first-born son, is brought to the temple so that he might complete the law, and the law might be completed by him.

Being brought to the temple, he is met by the righteous elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna: the old now passes, and the new has come, and the place where they meet, where the old meets the new and the new is revealed, is in the Temple, the place to which Jesus is brought as a sacrifice.

We heard last night in the readings from Isaiah that it was in the temple that Isaiah saw the Lord of glory enthroned and prophesied, that this same Lord would be worshipped by none other than the Egyptians—the biblical symbol of the gentiles hostile to Israel and their God. Now these words are fulfilled: Christ is brought into the temple, and he rests in the arms of the elder as on a throne. Israel’s glory has dawned in Christ, who is the light of revelation to the Gentiles. And now that Israel has accomplished its task of bringing the Messiah into the world, Simeon can depart in peace: the promises made in the beginning to Abraham about the calling of the nations are now fulfilled, so that in Abraham’s seed, all nations of the world are now blessed.

The very age of the righteous elder and the prophetess indicate the passing away of the ancient customs, the rituals and prescriptions, for these were only ever, as the apostle puts it, a shadow of the good things to come whereas the reality belongs to Christ, the one who was received in the arms of the elder, the one who was to cause the fall and rising again of many in Israel, the one who thus bestows upon us the resurrection—the new creation. All this, the righteous elder Simeon sees, and more: he foresees the pain that would wound the one who gave birth painlessly to the Son of God, that he will be a sign spoken against—but a sign that therefore reveals the thoughts of our hearts.

Today then, standing in the temple with Simeon, we do indeed come to the completion of the movement of God towards us, so that we can also say, let us depart in peace: the glory of God is revealed, enlightening those who sat in darkness.

Jesus and Zaccheus, Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua (Caserta) [© Bruno Brunelli]

Jesus and Zaccheus, Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua (Caserta)

But if the movement of God towards us is completed in this way, our movement now begins. We must begin to set our own sights upon the journey to Jerusalem, something we are reminded about by the second Gospel reading today: that about Zacchaeus—which alerts us to the coming pre-Lenten Sundays. If this movement of God towards us is indeed light coming into the world, enlightening those who sit in darkness, then there are various points of which we should take note.

Firstly, it means that we must recognize that we are indeed the ones who have been sitting in darkness. Only now, in the light of Christ, can we begin to realize how dark indeed has been our supposedly enlightened world and our all-too-human behavior, however decent, civilized, polite, it may seem. And, recognizing that we are the ones sitting in darkness, our response should be as Zacchaeus: not simply waiting around on the off-chance that the Lord will pass by, but, the Gospel says, he eagerly sought the Lord; he demonstrated an intense desire to seek him out, to actively find him.

The second point would be that as we begin to allow his light to shine upon us and in us, we will certainly begin to understand what it means that he is a sign spoken against, revealing the thoughts of our hearts; for as we begin to try to live by this sign, we will assuredly find all our resistances coming to the surface, all the reasons, the thoughts of our hearts which usually remain unconscious, all the reasons why we should do otherwise, or with less enthusiasm or zeal, or perhaps start tomorrow. In other words, the light that we are given enables us to see ourselves as we truly are, a feat that St Isaac says is greater than raising the dead. This is our own path to Golgotha. And, as with Zacchaeus, this requires recognizing how we stand. The Gospel reading places great emphasis on Zacchaeus’ small stature. He was short. Zacchaeus knew that he had to be lifted up, up from this earth, to see the Lord, and he does this by ascending the tree, an image of taking up the cross. Our problem, on the other hand, is that we do not know this: we think that we are something, something great and grand, someone important, with our own sense of self-worth.

We are indeed important and valuable in God’s eyes: out of love for us, he came to dwell among us, to save, redeem, and recreate us. But it is all too easy for our own sense of well-being and self-worth to get in the way, to prevent us from even realizing that we stand in need of what God has to offer; we spend most of our lives in delusion, not knowing that we are, in fact, small, needy, sinful, before him: it is for the sinners that he has come, to call them to repentance, not those who imagine themselves to be basically alright, needing Christ only for an extra religious element to their lives.

And finally, although we have been given so much more to see than was Simeon (we have repeatedly been present at his birth, his baptism, his passion and his resurrection), we have not yet really begun to see the Lord as did Simeon: to know that he is indeed our rest, our eternal rest, to find in him the peace that keeps us in peace throughout the storms of the sea of life, rather than being blown about from one crisis to the next, from one emotional bruise to another, or from one preoccupying thought to yet another habituated action that we will regret. Rather, what is required of us, to find this peace, is the repentance shown by Zacchaeus: a ready repentance, a change of mind, manifest not only in how we feel about things, but how we act: “half my goods I give to the poor; and will restore fourfold what I have defrauded.”

It is in these ways that we move from sitting in darkness to being enlightened by the light of God—the light that is also the peace of God. So let us pray that we may also learn to meet Jesus in the temple, so that we might also find in him the completion of our heart’s desire, and so ourselves come to know his mercy and peace; for this, as we will sing shortly, is the true sacrifice of praise.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.

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February 3, 2014 · 8:45 pm

Pascha: A Feast of Theology

As we approach Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, it is fitting that we consider once again the nature of the banquet to which we are invited.  As we will sing at Matins on Holy Thursday, we are called to ascend, with our minds on high, to enjoy the Master’s hospitality, the banquet of immortality in the upper chamber, receiving the words of the Word.  The nourishment that we are offered is a feast of theology; the food that we will feast on is the body and blood of the Word, the one who opens the Scriptures to show how they all speak of him and provide the means for entering into communion with him.

Our chapel here at St Vladimir’s Seminary is dedicated to Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.  Although they each have a particular day of celebration, our patronal feast celebrates them together, as the Three Great Hierarchs.  The hymnography for the feast celebrates first of all their words, their words of theology, how they spoke about God.  The feast was conceived in the eleventh century as a feast of oratory: it was a celebration of those who found the words adequate to express the Word of God.  Such theology is a sacred art – the Byzantines even called it a mysterion, a sacrament – and it is charged with divinity.  It embraces and elevates the words of men to convey Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

The Church celebrates the Three Hierarchs as great examples of those who took on this work.  Having studied at Athens and other intellectual centers of the ancient world, they used all their God-given intellectual powers for the celebration of this divine task.  If we too wish be disciples, or, more accurately, “students” of Christ, we must take on this task of theology, learning Christ and being renewed in our minds.  And there are two very important aspects of this that we always need to bear in mind.

First, that theology is not an abstract discipline or specialized profession.  It is not speculation about God himself, separated from his own revelation or what his revelation says about us.  It is not taking all the things that humans might think of as divine – omnipotence, omniscience, immortality – and then projecting them into the heavens.  This approach creates nothing better than a “super-human”, with divine attributes, perhaps, but nothing more than the best we can humanly conceive.  Rather, theology begins and ends with the contemplation of the revelation of God, as he has shown himself to be.  Anything else is not theology at all, but fantasy.  We do theology when we contemplate God’s own revelation: God, whose strength and wisdom is shown in the weakness and the folly of the cross.  Christ himself, the Word of God, demonstrates his strength and power in this all-too-human way, by dying a shameful death on the cross, in humility and servitude – trampling down death by death – showing that true lordship is service.  This one is the image of the invisible God: in Christ the fullness of divinity dwells bodily – the whole fullness, such that divinity is found nowhere else and known by no other means.

All of us, therefore, all of the people of God, must focus on the transforming power of God revealed in Christ by the power of the Spirit.  As the Great Hierarchs affirmed, we cannot know what God is in himself, but we know how he acts.  We are invited to come to a proper appreciation of the work of God in Christ by the Spirit.  We are called to understand that Jesus Christ is indeed the Word of God, whom, by the same Spirit, we must convey in our words.  To recognize him as the Word of God is not a matter of human perception, but to find the words to convey him certainly demands the application of our minds.  It requires that we raise our minds to a properly theological level, that we may be transformed by the renewal of our minds.  As Great Lent prepares us for the Feast of Feasts, so also honing our mental skills should prepare us for the feast of theology.

The second point to remember is that the theology that we celebrate is a pastoral theology.  The hymns for the Great Hierarchs proclaim that the pastoral power of their theology has overthrown the illusory words of the orators, of those who play with words, speaking on a merely human level.  Their theology is pastoral, in that it shepherds us into true life.  It invites us to understand ourselves, and the whole of creation, in the light of God revealed in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  This is not simply a matter of asking “What Would Jesus Do?”  Nor is it simply a matter of being “pastoral,” as we often hear that word used today, in the sense of ministering to others on their own terms, enabling them to feel comfortable with themselves.  Rather, it is the challenge to transfigure our own lives by allowing God’s own transforming power to be at work within us.

This means that we must confront our own brokenness and weakness, for this is how God has shown his own strength: it is only in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect.  And we will only have the strength to do this, we can do this only if we begin with God’s own revelation, if we begin with the theology taught to us by the Great Hierarchs.  We have to abandon what we humanly think divinity is, and to let God show us who and what he is.  We must begin, therefore, with the God who confronts us on the cross, who shows his love for us in this:  the love that he embodies.  Reflect on this: that when we are confronted with divine love in action, it is in the crucified Christ.  This reality reveals two things: how alienated we are from the call that brought us into existence, yet, at the same time, how much we are loved and forgiven.  In the light of Christ, we can begin both to understand our brokenness, our emptiness without him, and also to be filled with his love.  Theology shows us that the truth about God and the truth about ourselves always go together.

So, as we approach the Feast of Feasts, let us prepare ourselves to receive this revelation of God on his own terms.  Let us prepare ourselves for the challenge that his revelation presents, so that the Resurrection will transform us and renew our minds and we will find the words appropriate to offer the Word to others.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is Dean and Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His early work was on issues of asceticism and anthropology, focusing on St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. After spending almost a decade in the second century, Fr John began the publication of a series on the Formation of Christian Theology, and has now reached the fifth and sixth centuries. He has recently completed an edition and translation of, and introduction to, the remaining texts of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He has also published a synthetic presentation of the theology of the early centuries, focused on the mystery of Christ. He is also a passionate cyclist, often rescheduling family events around the Tour de France. Fr. John’s wife, a Tour de France enthusiast and armchair cyclist, teaches English at a nearby college, and their two sons and daughter are being taught to appreciate the finer points of French culture: the great “constructeurs” of the last century, Le Grande Boucle, and … cheese.

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