Dec 28, 2009

The Art of Fishing

There is an art to fishing, and Jesus demonstrated the nuances of that skill when He called Peter and Andrew to follow Him.  John Chrysostom (Matthew, homily 14) explains...

"And walking by the sea of Galilee, He saw two brethren, Simon that was surnamed Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishers.  And He says unto them, 'Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men.'  And they left their nets, and followed Him."  (Matthew 4:18-19)

And yet John says that they were called in another manner.  Whence it is evident that this was a second call; and from many things one may perceive this.  For there it is said, that they came to Him when John was not yet cast into prison; but here, after he was in confinement. And there Andrew calls Peter, but here Jesus calls both.  And John says, Jesus seeing Simon coming, says, You are Simon, the Son of Jona, you shall be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, a stone. (John 1:42)

But Matthew says that he was already called by that name; for his words are, Seeing Simon that was called Peter. And from the place whence they were called, and from many other things, one may perceive this; and from their ready obedience, and abandonment of all. For now they were well instructed beforehand. Thus, in the other case, Andrew is seen coming into His house, and hearing many things; but here, having heard one bare word, they followed immediately. Since neither was it unnatural for them to follow Him at the beginning, and then leave Him again and return anew to their own craft, when they saw both John thrown into prison, and Himself departing. Accordingly you see that He finds them actually fishing. But He neither forbad them at the first when minded to withdraw, nor having withdrawn themselves, did He let them go altogether; but He gave way when they started aside from Him, and comes again to win them back; which kind of thing is the great point in fishing.

Dec 25, 2009

Back to Eden

On the present great day He is born of the Virgin, having overcome the natural order of things. He is higher than wedlock and free from defilement. It sufficed that He the preceptor of purity should shine forth gloriously, to emerge from a pure and undefiled womb. For He — is That Same, Who in the beginning did create Adam from the virgin soil, and from Adam without wedlock did bring forth for him his wife Eve. And as Adam was without wife before that he had a wife, and the first woman then was brought into the world, so likewise on the present day the Virgin without man giveth birth to That One, about Whom spake the prophet: “He — is Man, who is he that doth know Him?” The Man Christ, clearly seen by mankind, born of God, is such that womankind was needed to perfect that of mankind, so that perfectly would be born man for woman. And just as from Adam was taken woman, without impairment and without diminishing of his masculine nature, so also from woman without man was needed to bring forth a man, similar to the bringing forth of Eve, so that Adam be not extolled in that without his means woman should bring forth woman. Therefore the Virgin without cohabitation with man gave birth to God the Word, made Man, so that in equal measure it was by the same miracle to bestow equal honour to both the one and the other half — man and woman. And just as from Adam was taken woman without his diminishing, so likewise from the Virgin was taken the body (Born of Her), wherein also the Virgin did not undergo diminishing, and Her virginity did not suffer harm. Adam dwelt well and unharmed, when the rib was taken from him: and so without defilement dwelt the Virgin, when from Her was brought forth God the Word. For this sort of reason particularly the word assumed of the Virgin Her flesh and Her (corporeal) garb, so that He be not accounted innocent of the sin of Adam. Since man stung by sin had become a vessel and instrument of evil, Christ took upon Himself this receptacle of sin into His Own flesh so that, the Creator having been co-united with the body, it should thus be freed from the foulness of the enemy, and man thus be clothed in an eternal body, which be neither perished nor destroyed for all eternity. Moreover, He that is become the God-Man is born, not as ordinarily man is born — He is born as God made Man, manifest of this by His Own Divine power, since if He were born according to the general laws of nature, the Word would seem something imperfect. Therefore, He was born of the Virgin and shone forth; therefore, having been born, He preserved unharmed the virginal womb, so that the hitherto unheard of manner of the Nativity should be for us a sign of great mystery.

- Excerpt from Discourse On the Nativity of Christ, by Saint Gregory Thaumatourgos, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea

Dec 18, 2009

My Way or God's Way

With our continual "pursuit of happiness" in our American culture, we eventually begin to embrace the belief that our life should be free from pain, inconvenience or struggle.  Thus, we labor endlessly to remove anything that becomes a barrier to this realization.  But a sober look at the lives of the prophets, apostles, saints and the life of our Lord Himself will reveal a different reality.

John Chrysostom, in his homilies on Matthew, addresses this mix of hardships and joys as he considers Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt with the young Child:
...thenceforth the angel talks openly...take the young Child and His mother, and flee into Egypt; and he mentions the cause of the flight: For Herod, says he, will seek the young Child's life.

Joseph, when he had heard these things, was not offended, nether did he say, The thing is hard to understand: Did you not say just now, that He should save His people?' and now He saves not even Himself: but we must fly, and go far from home, and be a long time away: the facts are contrary to the promise. Nay, none of these things does he say (for the man was faithful): neither is he curious about the time of his return; and this though the angel had put it indefinitely thus: Be there until I tell you. But nevertheless, not even at this did he shudder, but submits and obeys, undergoing all the trials with joy.

And this because God, who is full of love to man, did with these hardships mingle things pleasant also; which indeed is His way with regard to all the saints, making neither their dangers nor their refreshment continual, but weaving the life of all righteous men, out of both the one and the other. This very thing He did here also: for consider, Joseph saw the Virgin with child; this cast him into agitation and the utmost trouble, for he was suspecting the damsel of adultery. But straightway the angel was at hand to do away his suspicion, and remove his fears; and seeing the young child born, he reaped the greatest joy. Again, this joy no trifling danger succeeds, the city being troubled, and the king in his madness seeking after Him that was born. But this trouble was again succeeded by another joy; the star, and the adoration of the wise men. Again, after this pleasure, fear and danger; For Herod, says he, is seeking the young Child's life, and He must needs fly and withdraw Himself as any mortal might: the working of miracles not being seasonable as yet. For if from His earliest infancy He had shown forth wonders, He would not have been accounted a Man.

Because of this, let me add, neither is a temple framed at once; but a regular conception takes place, and a time of nine months, and pangs, and a delivery, and giving suck, and silence for so long a space, and He awaits the age proper to manhood; that by all meansacceptance might be won for the mystery of His Economy.

- homily 8 on Matthew

Dec 15, 2009

A Cradle, Nails and a Spear

Something that increasingly bothered me during my many years in evangelical churches was the emphasis on only two spiritual events: Christmas and Easter.  Granted, there were attempts to try and connect the two theologically, but experientially Christmas evoked thoughts of joy and peace and Easter focused on sorrow, the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  One had to kind of gear up for the emotions of two very different celebrations.

One of the bloggers I read on a weekly basis (A Catechumen's Tale) helped me understand this rather fragmented view of Christ's life and the dangers therein.  His posting was the result of an observation that many times the second verse is omitted from the well loved Christmas carol, "What Child Is This?", because it contains reference to the Cross, nails and a spear.  Here is an excerpt:

This latter point - the removal of the second part - seems to be the most common change made to the carol. One can only wonder why this is...perhaps the most obvious is, at the risk of drawing a hasty conclusion, the inclusion of the description of the crucifixion. One rarely hears of nails and spears piercing someone through in a Christmas song. I was originally going to focus this post entirely on the carol and the second part, but my mind (as it often does) began to wander around the point, and I began to think harder on this issue. Namely, how we seem to focus solely on one aspect of our Blessed Lord's life.

Just as we must believe in the fullness of Christ, so must we believe in the fullness of our Lord's time on earth. We cannot divide it into isolated incidents, for in focusing on one we lose the affect of all the others. For example, if we focus on our Lord's Incarnation, we turn Him into a happy Christmas story. If we focus on our Lord's ministry, we turn Him into just another friendly man with helpful advice. If we focus on our Lord's passion, we devalue His pain and suffering to the point where even a monkey could die on the cross for our salvation. If we focus on our Lord's Resurrection, then Christ serves no greater purpose than Lazarus.

The fullness of Christ is the fullness of His life. He was the Incarnate Word born into our sinful flesh, Who lived a pure and blessed life, Who suffered as the sacrificial lamb, and Who rose again to free us from the death that separated us from God. Due to our natural habit of thinking in limited terms, it's quite easy to fall into the trap of limiting our acknowledgment of Christ's life. Doing so, however, limits our understanding of Christ. If we forget the crucifixion at Easter, it's only easy enough for us to forget it at Christmas.

Dec 14, 2009

Finding the Hidden Beauty

Unless we look at a person and see the beauty there is in this person, we can contribute nothing to him. One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty. In France one speaks of 'la ville d'Ys', the city of Ys, which, because of the simpleness of the surrounding world, disappeared in the depth of a lake. Only people with a pure heart can see this city through the waters of the lake and hear the sound of its bells. This is what we must learn to do with regard to others. But to do so we must first have a purity of heart, a purity of intention, an openness which is not always there - certainly not in me - so that we can listen, can look, and can see the beauty which is hidden.

Every one of us is in the image of God, and every one of us is like a damaged icon. But if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it is damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty. And this is what we must learn to do with regard to each person as an individual, but also - and this is not always as easy - with regard to groups of people, whether it be a parish or a denomination, or a nation. We must learn to look, and look until we have seen the underlying beauty of this group of people. Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there. Listen to other people, and whenever you discern something which sounds true, which is a revelation of harmony and beauty, emphasize it and help it to flower. Strengthen it and encourage it to live.

- Met. Anthony of Sourozh

Dec 13, 2009

Letting it Sink In

John Chrysostom speaking on the importance of setting Sunday apart from the other days of the week:
I hear many say, While we are here, and enjoying the privilege of hearing, we are awed, but when we are gone out, we become altered men again, and the flame of zeal is quenched. What then may be done, that this may not come to pass? Let us observe whence it arises. Whence then does so great a change in us arise? From the unbecoming employment of ourtime, and from the company of evil men. For we ought not as soon as we retire from the Communion, to plunge into business unsuited to the Communion, but as soon as ever we get home, to take our Bible into our hands, and call our wife and children to join us in putting together what we have heard, and then, not before, engage in the business of life.

For if after the bath you would not choose to hurry into the market place, lest by the business in the market you should destroy the refreshment thence derived; much more ought we toact on this principle after the Communion . But as it is, we do the contrary, and in this very way throw away all. For while the profitable effect of what has been said to us is not yet well fixed, the great force of the things that press upon us from without sweeps all entirely away.

That this then may not be the case, when you retire from the Communion, you must account nothing more necessary than that you should put together the things that have been said to you. Yes, for it were the utmost folly for us, while we give up five and even six days to the business of this life, not to bestow on things spiritual so much as one day, or rather not so much as a small part of one day. See ye not our own children, that whatever lessons are given them, those they study throughout the whole day? This then let us do likewise, since otherwise we shall derive no profit from coming here, drawing water daily into a vessel with holes, and not bestowing on the retaining of what we have heard even so much earnestness as we plainly show with respect to gold and silver. For any one who has received a few pence both puts them into a bag and sets aseal thereon; but we, having given us oracles more precious than either gold or costly stones, and receiving the treasures of the Spirit, do not put them away in the storehouses of our soul, but thoughtlessly and at random suffer them to escape from our minds. Who then will pity us after all this, plotting against our own interests, and casting ourselves into so deep poverty? Therefore, that this may not be so, let us write it down an unalterable law for ourselves, for our wives, and for our children, to give up this one day of the week entire to hearing, and to the recollection of the things we have heard. For thus with greater aptness for learning shall we approach what is next to be said; and to us the labor will be less, and to you the profit greater, when, bearing inmemory what has been lately spoken, you hearken accordingly to what comes afterwards. For no little does this also contribute towards the understanding of what is said, when you know accurately the connection of the thoughts, which we are busy in weaving together for you. For since it is not possible to set down all in one day, you must by continued remembrance make the things laid before you on many days into a kind of chain, and so wrap it about your soul: that the body of the Scriptures may appear entire.

- Homily 5 on Matthew