Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Omega and the Alpha

After completing forty years of sojourn in this world, I was, in some small, given a foretaste and admission to paradise this past Sunday upon my reception to the Orthodox Catholic Church. That which I shared from St. Ephrem the Syrian near the beginning of this blog is applicable also to us all as we come to the faith, I think:

The thief gained the faith which gained him,
And brought him up and placed him in paradise.
He saw in the Cross a tree of life;
That was the fruit,
He was the eater in Adam's stead.
The fool, who goes astray,
Grazes the faith, as it were an eye,
By all manner of questions.
The probing of the finger blinds the eye,
And much more doth that prying blind the faith.
For even the diver pries not into his pearl.
In it do all merchants rejoice
Without prying into whence it came;
Even the king who is crowned therewith
Does not explore it.

As we sing in the liturgy: "But like the theif will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom."

Thus, my soujourn in the desert has come to a close. I enter the promised land, but like the Hebrews of old, that is not the end of the story, but the beginning - only the end of the prologue, perhaps.

A wise priest of whom I asked for prayers at the time of preparation for confession and chrismation did not offer them in response, but did offer a general remark to a wider audience that I took as his response to me: that too many talked of larger things as if they were Church Fathers rather than minding the little things required of the daily Christian walk. It was an excellent reminder and rebuke, even if not directly intended for me. Too often, even by simply quoting from the Fathers that which I thought profitable to quote, I have overspent on larger things than small things.

Today my father-in-law stands at the very threshhold of death. Yesterday I talked to him of little things and ultimate things, and perhaps despite the coma, somewhere, he heard me. I read to him from Revelation Chapter 21:

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. Then He who sat on the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new." And He said to me, "Write, for these words are true and faithful." And He said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. "He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son."

It has been good to be with my father-in-law during this last suffering of his, and to glean something more about the mystery of such things, and reflect that not only do we have God the Word that knows our sufferings (since he also, suffered), but that the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary stands as witness to the mystery of the suffering of the bystander watching another carry their cross. I have learned about little, but important things, and I need to continue in this vein.

Thank you (you know who you are) for your kindly prayers. Much as I decided to close the previous 'blog down after my entry to the catechumenate, I have decided to close this down and concentrate on little things as I prepare for deployment to the geographical desert of old Babylonia and as I continue the work begun in this life in the Church. I will leave up the contents so that I may refer back to this and that scripture or quote that I found profitable, and thus keep the profile alive and well so that I may visit from time to time and give good wishes to you, my friends (you know who you are!).

May I, with your prayers, as St. Cyril says (see previous post), keep the seal unspotted, and press forward with good works pleasing to the Captain of my salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ. And may you be kept in the knowledge and love of our Lord and enjoy that peace which passes understanding.

The end. And the beginning!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

On the Chrism

After baptism, the newly illumined is annointed with the chrism

"But beware of supposing this to be plain ointment. For as the Bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is mere bread no longer, but the Body of Christ, so also this holy ointment is no longer simple ointment, nor (so to say) common, after the invocation, but the gift of Christ; and by the presence of His Godhead, it causes in us the Holy Spirit. It is symbolically applied to thy forehead and thy other senses; and while thy body is annointed with visible ointment, thy soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit.

And ye were first anointed on your forehead, that ye might be delivered from the shame, which the first man, when he had transgressed, bore about with him everywhere; and that with open face ye might behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord. Then on your ears; that ye might receive ears quick to hear the Divine Mysteries, of which Esaias has said, 'The Lord wakened mine ear to hear'; and the Lord Jesus in the Gospel, 'He that hath ears to hear let him hear.' Then on your nostrils; that receiving the sacred ointment ye may say, 'We are to God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved.' Then on your breast; that having put on the breastplate of righteousness, ye may stand against the wiles of the devil. For as Christ after His baptism, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, went forth and vanquished the adversary, so likewise, having, after Holy Baptism and the Mystical Chrism, put on the whole armour of the Holy Spirit, do ye stand against the power of the enemy, and vanquish it, saying, 'I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.'

When ye are counted worthy of this Holy Chrism, ye are called Christians, verifying also the name by your new birth. For before you were vouchsafed this grace, ye had properly no right to this title, but were advancing on your way towards being Christians.

Moreover, you should know that this Chrism has its symbol in the old Scripture. For what time Moses imparted to his brother the command of God, and made him High Priest, after bathing in water, he anointed him; and Aaron was called "Christ" or "Anointed," from the emblematical Chrism. So also the High Priest raising Solomon to the kingdom, anointed him after he had bathed in Gihon. To them, however, these things happened in a figure, but to you not in a figure, but in truth; because ye were truly anointed by the Holy Spirit. . . .

. . .

For this holy thing is a spiritual preservative of the body, and safeguard of the soul. Of this in ancient times the blessed Esaias prophesying said . . . : 'And in this mountain shall the Lord make unto all people a feast; they shall drink wine, they shall drink gladness, they shall be anointed with ointment.' . . . Having been anointed, therefore, with this holy ointment, keep it unspotted and unblemished in you, pressing forward by good works, and becoming well-pleasing to the Captain of your salvation, Christ Jesus, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, c. 348 AD

Monday, July 02, 2007

St. John the Damascene

Image of Icon from Balamand University and Monastery of St. John of Damascus

My Bishop exhorted us this Sunday that all that we do: conferences, education, liturgy, ascesis, prayer, etc., is but for one purpose - to obtain the Kingdom of God. What is this? Christ says it is "within you" and the thief on the cross begs "remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom." What is this? Many fathers tell us the point of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Yes . . . yes. Acquire the Kingdom, acquire the Spirit, achieve paradise. These are the same goal. Theosis. Becoming partakers of the divine nature, as St. Peter talks about; becoming members of the body, as St. Paul talks about.

Now, St. John of Damascus [follow closely the matter of free will, of union (theosis) and the sacramental life - the life of baptism and of the mysteries of bread and wine]:

Man, however, being endowed with reason and free will, received the power of continuous union with God through his own choice, if indeed he should abide in goodness, that is in obedience to his Maker. Since, however, he transgressed the command of his Creator and became liable to death and corruption, the Creator and Maker of our race, because of His bowels of compassion, took on our likeness, becoming man in all things but without sin, and was united to our nature.

For since He bestowed on us His own image and His own spirit and we did not keep them safe, He took Himself a share in our poor and weak nature, in order that He might cleanse us and make us incorruptible, and establish us once more as partakers of His divinity.

For it was fitting that not only the first-fruits of our nature should partake in the higher good but every man who wished it, and that a second birth should take place and that the nourishment should be new and suitable to the birth and thus the measure of perfection be attained. Through His birth, that is, His incarnation, and baptism and passion and resurrection, He delivered our nature from the sin of our first parent and death and corruption, and became the first-fruits of the resurrection, and made Himself the way and image and pattern, in order that we, too, following in His footsteps, may become by adoption what He is Himself by nature, sons and heirs of God and joint heirs with Him. He gave us therefore, as I said, a second birth in order that, just as we who are born of Adam are in his image and are the heirs of the curse and corruption, so also being born of Him we may be in His likeness and heirs of His incorruption and blessing and glory.

Now seeing that this Adam is spiritual, it was meet that both the birth and likewise the food should be spiritual too, but since we are of a double and compound nature, it is meet that both the birth should be double and likewise the food compound. We were therefore given a birth by water and Spirit: I mean, by the holy baptism: and the food is the very bread of life, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who came down from heaven. For when He was about to take on Himself a voluntary death for our sakes, on the night on which He gave Himself up, He laid a new covenant on His holy disciples and apostles, and through them on all who believe on Him. In the upper chamber, then, of holy and illustrious Sion, after He had eaten the ancient Passover with His disciples and had fulfilled the ancient covenant, He washed His disciples’ feet in token of the holy baptism. Then having broken bread He gave it to them saying, Take, eat, this is My body broken for you for the remission of sins. Likewise also He took the cup of wine and water and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it: for this is My blood, the blood of the New Testament which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do ye in remembrance of Me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the death of the Son of man and confess His resurrection until He come. If then the Word of God is quick and energising, and the Lord did all that He willed; if He said, Let there be light and there was light, let there be a firmament and there was a firmament;if the heavens were established by the Word of the Lord and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth; if the heaven and the earth, water and fire and air and the whole glory of these, and, in sooth, this most noble creature, man, were perfected by the Word of the Lord; if God the Word of His own will became man and the pure and undefiled blood of the holy and ever-virginal One made His flesh without the aid of seed, can He not then make the bread His body and the wine and water His blood? He said in the beginning, Let the earth bring forth grass, and even until this present day, when the rain comes it brings forth its proper fruits, urged on and strengthened by the divine command. God said, This is My body, and This is My blood, and this do ye in remembrance of Me. And so it is at His omnipotent command until He come: for it was in this sense that He said until He come: and the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit becomes through the invocation the rain to this new tillage. For just as God made all that He made by the energy of the Holy Spirit, so also now the energy of the Spirit performs those things that are supernatural and which it is not possible to comprehend unless by faith alone. How shall this be, said the holy Virgin, seeing I know not a man? And the archangel Gabriel answered her: The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee2409. And now you ask, how the bread became Christ’s body and the wine and water Christ’s blood. And I say unto thee, “The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought.”

Further, bread and wine are employed: for God knoweth man’s infirmity: for in general man turns away discontentedly from what is not well-worn by custom: and so with His usual indulgence He performs His supernatural works through familiar objects: and just as, in the case of baptism, since it is man’s custom to wash himself with water and anoint himself with oil, He connected the grace of the Spirit with the oil and the water and made it the water of generation, in like manner since it is man’s custom to eat and to drink water and wine, He connected His divinity with these and made them His body and blood in order that we may rise to what is supernatural through what is familiar and natural. The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into God’s body and blood. But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit. And we know nothing further save that the Word of God is true and energises and is omnipotent, but the manner of this cannot be searched out. But one can put it well thus, that just as in nature the bread by the eating and the wine and the water by the drinking are changed into the body and blood of the eater and drinker, and do not become a different body from the former one, so the bread of the table and the wine and water are supernaturally changed by the invocation and presence of the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Christ, and are not two but one and the same.

Wherefore to those who partake worthily with faith, it is for the remission of sins and for life everlasting and for the safeguarding of soul and body; but to those who partake unworthily without faith, it is for chastisement and punishment, just as also the death of the Lord became to those who believe life and incorruption for the enjoyment of eternal blessedness, while to those who do not believe and to the murderers of the Lord it is for everlasting chastisement and punishment. The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but the deified body of the Lord itself: for the Lord has said, “This is My body,” not, this is a figure of My body: and “My blood,” not, a figure of My blood. And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eateth Me, shall live.

Wherefore with all fear and a pure conscience and certain faith let us draw near and it will assuredly be to us as we believe, doubting nothing. Let us pay homage to it in all purity both of soul and body: for it is twofold. Let us draw near to it with an ardent desire, and with our hands held in the form of the cross let us receive the body of the Crucified One: and let us apply our eyes and lips and brows and partake of the divine coal, in order that the fire of the longing, that is in us, with the additional heat derived from the coal may utterly consume our sins and illumine our hearts, and that we may be inflamed and deified by the participation in the divine fire. Isaiah saw the coal. But coal is not plain wood but wood united with fire: in like manner also the bread of the communion is not plain bread but bread united with divinity. But a body which is united with divinity is not one nature, but has one nature belonging to the body and another belonging to the divinity that is united to it, so that the compound is not one nature but two.

[from translation in Schaff's Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series]