Dec 30, 2010

The Slaughter of the Innocents

This passage in Jeremiah 31:15 which is quoted in Matthew 2:18 has always been difficult for me to understand. The following explanation from Mystagogy, quoting St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom, helped me greatly:

When the Holy Infants were killed under King Herod, we read in Sacred Scripture:
"Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the Prophet, saying; In Rama was there a voice heard, weeping and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children."
Icon of Rachel Weeping
A difficulty with this passage lies with the fact the tribe of Benjamin (that of Rachel) did not include Bethlehem. Why then did she cry for them if children of Bethlehem seem not to be her biological children? Saint Jerome explains:
"The child of Rachel was Benjamin, and Bethlehem is not a town belonging to his tribe. We must therefore seek another reason why Rachel should weep for the children of Judah, to whom Bethlehem belongeth, as for her own. The plain answer is that she is buried at Ephratha close to Bethlehem, and she is called Mother on account of the resting-place of her earthly tabernacle being there. It is possible also that she is called Mother because the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were joined together, and Herod slew not only all the children that were in Bethlehem, but also in all the coasts thereof."
Saint John Chrysostom explains:
"But what, it may be said, has Rachel to do with Bethlehem? For it says, 'Rachel weeping for her children.' And what has Rama to do with Rachel? Rachel was the mother of Benjamin, and on her death, they buried her near this place. The tomb then being near, and the portion pertaining unto Benjamin her infant (for Rama was of the tribe of Benjamin), from the head of the tribe first, and next from the place of her sepulchre, he naturally denominates her young children who were massacred. Then to show that the wound that befell her was incurable and cruel, he says, “she would not be comforted because they are not."
Thus because Rachel's tomb was on the road towards Bethlehem, and because the slaughter took place in that area, Rachel wept.
Also, for further information on the historicity of this event, click here.

Dec 23, 2010

The Incarnation

Artist Viktor Vasnetsov
To the question: “Why did the Son of God appear on earth in a human body and not in another form of creation?”, the brilliant St. Athanasius replied in this manner: “If they ask why did He not appear in some other better form of creation, for example: as the sun or the moon, or the stars or fire, or the wind but just as a man? Let them know that the Lord did not come to show Himself but to heal and teach sufferers. For, to reveal Himself only to amaze the viewers would mean to come for a show. It was necessary for the Healer and the Teacher, not only to come, but to serve for the benefit of the suffering ones and to reveal Himself as such so that this revelation would be bearable for the sufferers. Not one single creature was in error in the eyes of God, except man alone: neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the sky, nor the stars, nor water, nor wind did betray their ranks but, on the contrary, knowing their Creator and their King - The Word [The Logos] - they all remained as they were created; only human beings separated themselves from good and replaced truth with deceit, and the honor belonging to God, as well as the knowledge about Him, they transferred to devils and to men carved out of stone [idols]. What is, therefore, so unbelievable in this, that the Logos [The Word - The Son Of God] appeared as a man to save mankind?” Indeed, even as we ask the unbelievers of our day: In what form would you wish God to appear, if not as a man?

- St. Athanasius

Dec 20, 2010

Mental Clutter

"We must first begin by realizing that prayer is not foreign to us. When we were infants, before our cognitive abilities developed, we were daily in God's presence. Many of us, at the end of our lives, when old age causes those abilities to fail, will find ourselves daily in God's presence again. Prayer is nothing more and nothing less than the rediscovery of that Divine Presence in the lifetime that exists between those two moments.

"What has hindered us in prayer is the mental clutter that we have accumulated in our lives: our pride, our sins, our bad choices (and even our good ones), our constant grasping for money. All of these things have stilled the voice of prayer within us. We must now work to hear it once again." 

- Fr. Lawrence Barriger

Dec 19, 2010

The True Self Revealed

God “giveth grace unto the humble” (Ja. 4:6), which corrects and renews a man. So the man who knows himself begins to correct himself and gets progressively better. Know yourself, then, and you shall correct yourself.

Temptations and trials show what hides in the heart of a man. Temptation is similar to the medicine called an emetic. An emetic reveals what is hidden in the stomach. So temptations and trials make manifest what is inside a man. The holy word of God and other Christian books point out the corruption of our nature, but we recognize it by actual experience or deed in temptations and trials.

Thus vainglory becomes apparent through the deprivation of glory, avarice through the deprivation of riches, envy through the success of one’s neighbor, and anger through disappointment. If, then, you fall into various temptations, O Christian, this all happens by God’s permission for your great benefit, that you may thereby know what is hidden in your heart, and so knowing it you may correct yourself. Many flatter themselves and consider themselves to be good, humble, and meek, but they will discover the contrary under temptation. Do not become despondent in temptations, then, but give all the more thanks to God that He thus brings you to knowledge of yourself and wishes you to be corrected and be saved.

~St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

Dec 17, 2010

The German Army

C.S. Lewis
“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting it, not by giving in. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it.”

- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Dec 13, 2010


Living in this fallen world, we continually experience disappointments, losses, and sufferings. I have always understood these as opportunities for trusting God - to look to God for the strength to endure and persevere through them, with the hope that I will come out on the other side spiritually stronger. There are also endless stories and accounts of individuals who don't hold to the Christian faith who have faced challenges and insurmountable odds, persevered and come out stronger individuals on the other side. So how does a Christian's suffering differ from that of a non-Christian? Fr. Michael Gillis addresses this in a recent blog (I began to pull excerpts from the post, but quickly realized that nothing could be left out!). 

In Colossians chapter one, St. Paul prays for the Colossians that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and live (“walk”) in a manner worthy of and pleasing to the Lord, bearing fruit in good works and increasing in their knowledge of God. In order to do this the Colossians are to be “empowered with the strength that is according to God’s glorious might.” But then comes the surprising part.

We think we already know what it means to bear fruit in good works pleasing to God. Good works, we assume, are to do something, to accomplish something. Especially when St. Paul’s prayer uses synonyms for power three times, we assume that the good works pleasing to God have to do with the accomplishment of some great task, a feat, the overcoming of some injustice or the establishment of some righteous policy or institution. For us, bearing fruit in good works that are pleasing to God means doing something that can be seen: changing the world - or a least a piece of it, a piece outside myself.

Ah, there’s the rub.

The surprising part of this prayer is that St. Paul tells the Colossians exactly how “the strength that is according to God’s glorious power” is to empower them to bear “fruit in good works.” The power is “for all patience [endurance] and longsuffering with joy” which is manifest in “giving thanks to the Father.” The good works that are pleasing to God are born and manifest in endurance and longsuffering with joy, in giving thanks even in distressing circumstances.

Suffering is a part of life. Everyone suffers. Endurance and suffering for a long time (i.e. longsuffering) is nothing unique - it is the common human lot. What is uniquely Christian, what requires the power of God, is to endure and suffer for a long time with joy and giving thanks to the Father. Without the power of God, we suffer only as Michael Henchard does in the Mayor of Casterbridge, of whom Hardy says, “Misery taught him nothing more than the defiant endurance of it.” However, by the power of God, suffering with joy and thanksgiving can become a means of growth and transformation.

This is counter-intuitive. How can enduring evil transform it? Aren’t we called to change the world? Isn’t that what it means to do good works? Aren’t Christians called to be “salt and light” (i.e. agents of change)? The short answer is no. We are called to be changed and be transformed. We are called to transform that part of the world and its evil that dwells within ourselves. Then, as God wills, the world outside ourselves will be influenced.

The crucible of our transformation is the patient endurance of suffering with joy and thanksgiving by the power of God.

Patient suffering with joy and thanksgiving is not all the Christian life is about. This is, after all, only one of St. Paul’s prayers. However, patient suffering with joy and thanksgiving is an essential part of the Christian life. It is a part wherein we share in the sufferings of Christ, a part wherein we bear fruit in good works pleasing to God, and unfortunately it is a part we’d prefer to ignore. We feel so much more comfortable imagining that God’s glorious power in our lives exists to help us to do something rather than to endure something

Dec 11, 2010

How We Read the Scriptures

Fr. Ted Bobosh (a priest in the Orthodox Church of America) has been posting a series on his blog called  Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology. Coming from an Evangelical background, I have found his explanations very helpful. The following excerpt addresses the issue of Sola Scriptura:

The Fathers adapted the methods they had learned in their own rhetorical education for how to read texts to the reading of the Scriptures.  They understood the methodology they had learned as to be the way to unveil the meaning which the ancient authors had put into their texts.  The Scriptures, whose author they thought of as ultimately being God, were read with the same methods, intending to discover the meaning and the message God had put into the words of the text which the inspired authors of the Bible recorded.  These same methods were used for centuries by Christian theologians as the means by which to read the Scriptures.

After the Protestant Reformation however there was a distrust by Protestants of traditional methods of interpreting the Scriptures.  Many Protestants felt they could simply take the texts of Scriptures and free themselves from any established, traditional interpretation and in so doing would come to the true meaning of the text.  This was the main intention of reading “Scripture alone.”
“But the principle of sola scriptura suggests that the truth of the Christian religion is contained in Scriptures, and that the work of the theologian and exegete is to extract this truth by rightly interpreting Scripture ... The presupposition that lies behind all this … is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism.  We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment. ...  Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not a treasury. … The heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, and not in and for themselves.”  (Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery,  pp 99-102)
Thus the modern Fundamentalist reading of the Scriptures only “literally”  was the result of embracing a “scientific” view of Scriptures and accepting a very narrow definition of truth as having always to deal with the material or empirical universe alone.   Limiting the reading of Scripture to its “literal” sense was related to the historical criticism embraced by the Enlightenment.   It ripped the Scriptures  away from their faith context – the community which had preserved and proclaimed them – and made them a literary document that should be read alone and apart from the faith community which had composed and adopted them.  Scripture alone stripped the text of the Bible from the context of the people of God (the Church) and really came to mean that only whatever meaning each person puts into the Scriptures is what they mean.  “Scripture alone” worked well with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual.  Each individual was to rid himself or herself of any tutelage by tradition and thus each individual alone gave the Bible its meaning.  Simultaneously it denied that the Scriptures have a meaning inherent in them – a revelation from God.

Dec 10, 2010

Cherubs, Seraphims and Angels

At this time of year, one sees more depictions of angels than the rest of the year. I have often wondered how and when they began to be shown as winged women or even babies with wings, since that is never mentioned in the scriptures. I found the following article to be helpful.

History of Winged Angels in Christian Art
Jun 23, 2010 Valerie Williams
History of Winged Angels in Christian Art - Leo Reynolds
Since the 4th century A.D., angels have been depicted as two-winged creatures, as babies, and as women, influenced by pagan images of winged gods.

Angel art is dominated by portrayals of angels as either cute, two-winged baby angels, called cherubs, two-winged female angels, and two-winged male angels. Gracing greeting cards and adorning the edifices of churches, these images are the ones people are most familiar with in typifying an angelic being.
Abraham and the Angels, Rembrandt

Description of Winged Angels in the Bible
The two types of winged angels described in the scriptures are cherubims and seraphims. According to the prophet Ezekiel, cherubims have four wings. The word "cherubims" derives from the Hebrew word keruwb, and refers to an angelic being with four wings (Strong's Concordance H3742). In the book of Isaiah, seraphims are described as having six wings. This word derives from the Hebrew word saraph, which also refers to an angelic being, and comes from the root word which means to burn (Strong's H8313-14). This description of what an angelic being is composed of accords with Psalms 104:4 which describes angels as flaming fire.

Depictions of Angels in Pre-Christian Art
Ancient Egyptians, and later the ancient Greeks, depicted their gods as winged creatures. Greek gods such as Hermes and Perseus were illustrated as deities with two wings. Cupid was a Roman god who was portrayed with two wings. Early Christian art did not portray angels with wings; instead, early depictions of angels in Christian art were often presented as men in human form, often dressed in robes.

As well as pagan gods, pagan goddesses were also featured as winged creatures; thus, the images of female angels abounded in pre-Christian art. Winged Victories, called Nikes, were women with wings, often holding a victor's wreath on which they inscribed a victory over an enemy. In Roman art, female angels often appeared partially clad in long, flowing robes. These images portrayed these female angels with two wings.

Constantine's Reign and its Effect on Angel Art
Portrayals of angels in Christian art began to change with the advent of Constantine's reign as emperor of Rome in the 4th century. The council of Nicea in 325. A.D. formed Christianity as the religion of the state, and it was after this that angels with wings, baby angels, and female angels, as well as halos, began to appear in Christian art. Prior to this period Christian art did not portray angels with wings so as not to give the impression of paying homage to a host of pagan deities as did the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians.

However, after the 4th century, angels with wings not only began to appear in Christian art, but also began to mimic the winged deities found in ancient Mesopotamian art. The image of a cherub as a tiny, winged baby follows the tradition of the art found in ancient Rome and Greece, and has no resemblance to the description of the cherubims described by Ezekiel in the bible.

Halos also began to appear in Christian art after the 4th century. Prior to this, halos were painted above the heads of pagan gods or emperors. The word "halo" comes from the Greek and Roman god Helios. Helios was often adorned with a sunburst or ring of light around his head, called a "gloria". The term "gloria" derives from the Roman goddess Gloria, who held the zodiac sign. Halos began appearing with regularity, adorning the heads of angels as well as the Madonna and other Catholic saints.

By the fifth century, winged angels in Christian art became commonplace. Scenes such as the Anunciation depicted on St. Mary Major's and two mosaics of St. Apollinare Nuovo and St. Vitale, are examples of Christian art embracing the ideology of winged angels.

First-century historian, Flavius Josephus, in describing Solomon's temple, says that no one can tell or even conjecture what was the shape of cherubim. The bible does not speak of baby angels, female angels, angels with two wings, or angels with halos above their heads; yet, Christian art is filled with angels depicted in this manner. (Accessed June 10, 2010) (Accessed June 10, 2010) (Accessed June 10, 2010)
Koster, C.J., "Come Out Of Her, My People", Institute for Scripture Research LTD, 5th Edition, Jan, 2004


It was said that there were three friends who were not afraid of hard work. The first one chose to reconcile those who were fighting each other, as it is said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The second one chose to visit the sick. The third went to live in prayer and stillness in the desert. Now in spite of all his labors, the first one could not make peace in all men’s quarrels; and in his sorrow he went to him who was serving the sick, and he found him also disheartened, for he could not fulfill that commandment either. So they went together to see him who was living in the stillness of prayer. They told him their difficulties and begged him to tell them what to do. After a short silence, he poured some water into a bowl and said to them, “Look at the water,” and it was disturbed. After a little while he said to them again, “Look how still the water is now,” and as they looked into the water, they saw their own faces reflected in it as in a mirror. Then he said to his friends, “It is the same for those who live among men; disturbances prevent them from seeing their own faults. But when a man is still, especially in the desert, then he sees his failings.”

A thank you for this quote goes to Word From the Desert

Dec 3, 2010

First Thing in the Morning

Due to the recent time change, my daily walks in the morning occur right when the sun is coming up in the East. Some mornings have been very cool and windy, and I am always amazed to find many of the birds in the neighborhood perched on the topmost branches of the trees and facing East. The scene reminds me of an audience sitting with eager anticipation, waiting for the orchestra to play the first few measures of a great masterpiece.

Perhaps the birds are just eager to feel the sun's rays and absorb the warmth. But I would think that that would be best achieved by staying burrowed in the bushes until the air warms up a few hours later. On the other hand, maybe these tiny creatures, so valued by the Creator, are merely displaying their love and devotion to him as they know their very lives depend on him every day. We also owe our very breath to our Holy God, and yet we busy ourselves from sunrise to setting sun (and even beyond that) scarcely acknowledging the fact. The birds got it right. We need to pay attention.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? 
Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 
And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 
So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)