Today let us praise the mystical trumpets of the Spirit,
the God-bearing Fathers,
who stand in the midst of the Church, singing true theology,
praising the changeless Trinity!
(Vespers of the Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils)
On the Sunday between July 13-19, we annually commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils. So, for us this year, that was yesterday, July 14. I incorporated that commemoration into my homily, if only briefly yesterday. I have thus provided two links that will both provide excellent background material about the "Holy Fathers" and some of the history and theology behind the first six Ecumenical Councils. The first is the posting on the OCA's official webpage; and the second is from Fr. Thomas Hopko's four volume The Orthodox Faith. I would highly recommend spending some time with these sources, especially if your knowledge of either is not that strong. These Councils and the great Fathers of the Church are at the heart of Orthodoxy. If you are acquainted with the Founding Fathers of America, you need to be equally - if not more - acquainted with the Founding Fathers of the Church. They wrote, not of politics, but of the Gospel and eternal life.
I closed my homily yesterday with a practical/pastoral proposal, perhaps even something of a challenge: To make a commitment that before the year is over - more than a five month period! - to read at least one work of one of the Holy Fathers of the Church.
I am confident that this will be a great discovery for you. The writings of the Fathers are actually quite accessible. Often enough, they write with clarity and a deep faith that enlightens and inspires. The Fathers are not dry, academic scholars writing for their academic peers. They are pastors writing for the strengthening of the faith of the members of the Body of Christ. They employ the language of the Scriptures and some other theological language, but it is never the heavy jargon that you may encounter elsewhere today in theological circles. Be that as it may, that is for you to discover when you choose and begin your work.
A tremendous resource for these writings is the Popular Patristic Series which has been an ongoing publishing enterprise of SVS Press for decades now. (The term "Patristics" means the "Fathers"). These are translation into English from the original Greek, Latin and Syriac. There are probably over fifty volumes now available, including most of the great classics of patristic literature. I am providing the link to the SVS Press page that will allow you browse these titles: https://www.svspress.com/categories/Popular-Patristics-Series/
A particular title may immediately grab your attention. If you would like some assistance in choosing a title that may be the most suitable for you, please contact me, and I will try and offer some helpful advice.
For the moment, I am going to include in this mailing a kind of "Top Ten" from this series of Patristic literature. These ten will be of the most popular, widely-read, and influential works from the Holy Fathers that have shaped our theology, liturgy and spirituality for centuries down to the present.
The Seven Letters by St. Ignatius of Antioch (+ c. 110) One of the first major writings after the New Testament period. The three major themes in these Letters are: 1) the hierarchy of the Church; 2) the Eucharist; 3) Martyrdom.
On the Apostolic Preaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (+ c. 200 ) A wonderful summary of the divine economy from Creation to Christ.
On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great (+ 373) One of the classics about the Word becoming flesh.
On the Holy Spirit by St. Basil the Great (+379) Another remarkable treatise demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit based on the Scriptures.
On God and Christ, Five Theological Orations by St. Gregory the Theologian (+390) A bit advanced, but probably the most influential treatises on the Trinity ever written.
Festal Orations by St. Gregory the Theologian. Tremendous collection of homilies by St. Gregory from Nativity to Pascha.
Lectures on the Christian Sacraments by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+ c. 370) How did the Christians of the 4th c. celebrate Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist? These treatises explain this very well.
On Wealth and Poverty by St. John Chrysostom (+ 407) St. John's famous homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
On Marriage and Family Life by St. John Chrysostom. Very practical advise for husbands and wives, their mutual relationship and the raising of children based on certain scriptural texts. Surprisingly contemporary considering when St. John lived.
Three Treatises on the Divine Images by St. John of Damascus (+749) Great scriptural defense of the icons within the Iconoclastic Controversy.
Last Sunday was the First Sunday After Pentecost. All of the subsequent Sundays of the liturgical year until the pre-lenten Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee sometime next year will be so numbered. Thus, this coming Sunday will be the Second Sunday After Pentecost. This is not intended to help us count better.
The purpose is to keep before our spiritual sight the overwhelming significance of Pentecost in the divine economy.
The New Testament era of the Church began its existence on the Day of Pentecost with the Spirit’s descent as a mighty rushing wind that took on the form of fiery tongues alighting upon the heads of the future apostles (ACTS 2:1-13). The Church has always existed, but the Church as a remnant of Israel that would flourish and grow with the addition of the Gentiles began its final phase of existence with the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, Who, seated at the right hand of the Father, would send the Holy Spirit into the world and upon “all flesh” on the Day of Pentecost. As St. Epiphanius of Cyprus wrote in the fourth century:
“The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ.”
The simple calendar rubric of numbering the Sundays after Pentecost is one way of reminding us of this essential truth of the Christian Faith. The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and in and through the sacramental life of the Church we experience something like a permanent pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is this outpouring of the Spirit "on all flesh" that offers the possibility and the promise of human holiness. The fact that so many men, women and children throughout the centuries of the Church's existence received this gift with joy and gladness is revealed to us in the lives of the saints. It is these "holy persons" that we commemorated last Sunday on the Sunday of All Saints.
However, as we embark upon the Sundays of Pentecost we immediately encounter a prevailing tension between the "rhythm" of the Church and the "rhythm" of our personal lives. We begin these Pentecostal Sundays just when summer is also beginning - and our summer schedules often minimize our participation in the Church.
So, as we receive the Spirit of renewal and re-commitment to the Church as the source of authentic life; as we pray to the Heavenly King and Spirit of Truth to "come and abide in us;" we more-or-less settle into our church summer schedules that have something of a lazy-hazy approach to the Church. There seems to exist an Orthodox version of "the summertime blues!"
This can especially afflict Orthodox parents who equate "summer vacation" from school and summer vacation from church school. The notion of "we're off until the Fall!" can translate into sporadic attendance at the Lord's Day Liturgy, let alone any other services or events in the church. Fortunately for us, God's providential care for us is not seasonal.
Thus, the tension between Pentecostal renewal and the beginning of summer. If anyone gets the urge to just stay home on Sunday for leisure purposes or for no particular reason at all, my pastoral response is: that is a temptation that must be resisted.
Also, this weekend we will commemorate the two great apostles, Peter and Paul, with Great Vespers on Friday evening and the Divine Liturgy on Saturday morning. And this after a week of observing the Apostles Fast. There are all kinds of activities that attract us on a Friday evening - from festivals to "chilling out." This leaves us with a choice, of course.
I am a realist about what to expect for liturgical services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. But I am also open to surprises. The Apostles Peter & Paul labored so that we could hear and receive the gift of salvation. We honor their labors and their martyric deaths when we celebrate their memories. And we also commit ourselves to their vision of life in the Church when we do so.
The Lord's Day cycle for the Second Sunday of Pentecost - when we commemorate the Saints of North America - begins with Great Vespers on Saturday at 6:00 p.m. and culminates with the Hours and Liturgy on Sunday morning at 9:10 and 9:30 a.m. respectively.
The liturgical book that we began with the Matins of Pascha is called The Pentecostarion. This theologically-rich book contains the hymnography for all the days of Pascha, and the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost.
But it does not end with the Leavetaking of Pentecost.
We draw from The Pentecostarion one last time on the Sunday of All Saints, our celebration yesterday. This commemoration is all-inclusive, embracing all of the men, women and children - known and unknown - throughout the ages that have been well-pleasing to God in honestly trying to fulfill the will of God in all things.
If a "saint" is a holy person, then that holiness is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not a humanly-generated holiness; as it is not a matter of the "indomitable human spirit" struggling to overcome any and all adversities. A saint is the one that makes a conscious effort to cooperate with God (synergy), and is fully aware of his/her dependence on the grace and deifying energies of the "Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth."
Thus, the Feast of All Saints is the perfectly-placed commemoration to follow the entire paschal-pentecostal season.
If there is a "road to perdition" then there is certainly a "road to holiness." And there is a seemingly endless number of vocations that a particular person will be able to follow on that road - straight and narrow as it may be.
In the Liturgy we commemorate "those who have fallen asleep in faith: ancestors, fathers, mothers, patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith." What are some of the consistent characteristics of the multitude of saints who bless the Church with their intercessory presence? Perhaps we can bring to mind a few of those qualities that draw forth our admiration as well as our desire for emulation:
+ Following the words of the Lord, the saints love no one more than they love Christ - father, mother, son, daughter, etc. They place nothing or no one above the "one thing needful" - Christ and the fulfillment of the Gospel precepts. The primary goal of the saints is to enter the Kingdom of God.
+ The saints acknowledge that they are sinners and spend their lives in an ever-deepening experience of repentance. They will thus never justify or rationalize their sins or shortcomings. But they will never despair of the boundless forgiveness and love of God. The saints realize that they are "nothing" without God.
+ The saints are not concerned with worldly popularity, praise and recognition. They feel no need for "ego gratification." They have no need to favorably compare themselves with their neighbors. They do not feel envy or jealousy when their neighbors prosper. They flee from pride as from the plague.
+ The saints suffer in spirit over the suffering of others in the world. They mourn in spirit when they contemplate the sinfulness of the world. They are deeply compassionate toward all creatures. The heart of the saint expands in order to embrace the entire creation with love.
+ The saints leave all judgment in the hands of God.
+ The saints are ever-prepared to forgive others when they are offended or even persecuted. And they will suffer if they even inadvertently offend another. They do not hold grudges or long-standing anger towards others. Reconciliation is always their goal. They can actually "turn the other cheek." The saints will even love their "enemies."
+ The saints struggle to overcome their fleshly and spiritual temptations. They do this through the consistent practice of prayer, almsgiving and fasting. They also do this by guarding over their "thoughts," driving away the ones that strengthen temptation and thus the proclivity to sin. Their goal is to overcome the "passions."
+ The saints know the Scriptures "forwards and backwards." They regularly immerse themselves in the living Word of God so as to put its teachings into practice.
+ The saints will confess their sins with regularity. They will receive the Eucharist "in the fear of God, and with faith."
+ The saints will defend the Faith when it is under attack, but never harm another person in the process.
No one, beginning with the Lord, ever said it would be easy! In fact, the Lord taught us yesterday in the Gospel: "And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (MATT. 10:38).
"The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism." (St. Kallistos and St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos)
Icon of St Seraphim of Sarov's Conversation with N. Motovilov, during which he is transfigured by the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit.
Although the Feast of Pentecost reveals the trinitarian nature of God, it is on this "last and great day of Pentecost" that we concentrate on the Holy Spirit. This is clear from the prescribed readings for the Sunday of Pentecost: ACTS 2:1-11 describing the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; and JN. 7:37-52. 8:12, the Gospel passage which speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit by the glorified Christ.
As Orthodox Christians we do not reduce the Holy Spirit to a kind of indefinite divine power or energy. Rather, we clearly proclaim that the Holy Spirit is God, the "Third Person" of the "holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity."
We further believe that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (JN. 15:26) and "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified" (Nicene Creed). As one of the many beautiful hymns of the Vespers of Pentecost expresses this truth:
The Holy Spirit was, is, and ever shall be Without beginning, without end, Forever united and numbered with the Father and the Son ...
The Holy Spirit, present within the dispensation of the Old Testament and more openly within the earthly ministry of Christ, descends into the world in a unique, but decisive and final way on the Great Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Savior's resurrection. The coming of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the New Testament Church and the Holy Spirit abides in the Church as the life-giving Power of renewal, rebirth and regeneration. The Church would grow old and die (as do empires, nations, cultures and secular institutions) because of our many human and historical sins, if not for this presence of the Holy Spirit, making the Church ever-young and cleansing us all "from every impurity" as the personal Source of sanctification. We come to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it a bit more fully:
"One does not think of the Father without the Son and one does not conceive of the Son without the Holy Spirit. For it is impossible to attain to the Father except by being raised by the Son, and it is impossible to call Jesus Lord save in the Holy Spirit."
All authentic life in the Church is life lived in the Holy Trinity, and on the Day of Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit is the final revelation of precisely this greatest of mysteries - that the one God is "tri-hypostastic" (meaning "tri-personal"), being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Here is a typical example from the Church Fathers of expressing the great paradox of the One God in Three Persons:
"The single divinity of the Trinity is undivided and the three Persons of the one divinity are unconfused. We confess Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, divided yet without division and united yet with distinctions." (St. Thalassios the Libyan)
The Sunday of Pentecost is, then, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Pentecost Monday being the day of the Holy Spirit. Of the divine attributes of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great enumerates the following:
"From this Source comes foreknowledge of the future, the understanding of mysteries, the apprehension of things hidden, the partaking of spiritual gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the choir of angels, unending joy, the power to abide in God, to become like God, and, highest of all ends to which we can aspire, to become divine."
This can strike us as abstract. But theology reveals to us the foundation and the vision on which and in which we order our spiritual lives. The dogma of the Trinity must impact our lives.
The beginning of this process of discerning the presence of God in our lives and in trying to live out that presence is to be found in the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation. Each and every human person, baptized and chrismated into the life of the Orthodox Church so as to receive the gift of salvation from sin and death unto life eternal, has participated in his/her own personal Pascha and Pentecost. To be baptized is to die and rise in Christ; to be chrismated is to receive "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." Alive in Christ, sealed and filled with the Holy Spirit! New life and the power with which and in which we are enabled to continue in that life!
Without Christ we "can do nothing" (JN. 15:5), and without the Holy Spirit - poured out upon us by the risen, ascended and glorified Christ at Pentecost - we cannot say that "Jesus is Lord." (I COR. 12:3)
As St. Seraphim of Sarov put it: "The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Spirit of God."
Yet, I cannot but wonder if - or to what extent - we are troubled if we squander the "great grace of Baptism" that we received when we were buried with Christ in the baptismal font, both a tomb (dying to sin) and a womb (rebirth). It seems as if we can be insensitive to the withdrawal of the Spirit's presence from our minds and hearts through sheer inattention and lack of vigilance.
The saints would weep for their sins - in fact, this is called "gifts of tears" as the means of restoring that very baptismal grace forfeited by sin - while we shrug off our own sins as "normal" and practically inevitable considering the conditions and circumstances of life. If we are more-or-less "like other people" in conformity with a basic set of moral principles, and thus maintaining a good image in the eyes of others, then we are usually perfectly content with our own sinfulness. In this way, we domesticate and normalize sin by rendering it innocuous and easy to live with.
So understood, sin is no longer that tragic "missing of the mark" that renders sin so baneful a reality, a reality from which we needed to be saved by the death of our Savior. Thus, we re-define sin so that our notion of sin hardly resembles what we find in the Scriptures!
But how we may weep and gnash our teeth if and when we lose money, property, status, or simply "things;" how we mourn the loss of even a "trinket" if we have invested it with sentimental value. It is these types of losses that are meaningful and which demand our attention and concern, while the muting of the "voice" of the Spirit deep within our conscience will only draw a lukewarm sigh. This is a most unfortunate reversal of values; for losing the "seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit" is tantamount to losing our "heavenly treasure;" while losing our earthly treasures is only to lose what "moth and rust consume" despite our heroic efforts to escape that process.
This is a paradox: When, by the grace of God, our spiritual lives have matured in such a way that we truly mourn (and even weep!) over our sins which strip us of the presence of the "Comforter and Spirit of Truth," then through genuine repentance, the Holy Spirit will "come and abide in us" to "warm our hearts with perfect love," according to the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov.
"The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and the person in whom the Holy Spirit lives feels that he has paradise within." (St. Silouan of Mt. Athos)
"I ascend unto My Father, and your Father, and to my God, and Your God.” (JN. 20:17)
Today is the fortieth day after the glorious Resurrection of Christ, and that is, of course, Ascension Thursday. We celebrated the Feast with the Vesperal Liturgy yesterday evening, and we had a great representative body of parishioners present for the Feast, including some of our parish teenagers. I hope that one and all have a joyous and blessed feast day.
The Risen Lord is also the Ascended Lord and, therefore, in the words of Fr. Georges Florovsky: “In the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection.”
I would refer everyone to the complete article by Fr. Florovsky, a brilliant reflection on the theological and spiritual meaning of the Lord’s Ascension. This article is accessed from our parish website together with a series of other articles that explore the richness of the Ascension. In addition to Fr. Florovsky’s article, I would especially recommend The Ascension as Prophecy. With so many fine articles on the Ascension within everyone’s reach, I will not offer up yet another one, but I would like to make a few brief comments:
Though the visible presence of the Risen Lord ended forty days after His Resurrection, that did not mean that His actual presence was withdrawn. For Christ solemnly taught His disciples – and us through them – “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (MATT. 28:20) The risen, ascended and glorified Lord is the Head of His body, the Church. The Lord remains present in the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church. This reinforces our need to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, through which we receive the deified flesh and blood of the Son of God, “unto life everlasting.”
Christ ascended to be seated at “the right hand of the Father” in glory, thus lifting up the humanity He assumed in the Incarnation into the very inner life of God. For all eternity, Christ is God and man. The deified humanity of the Lord is the sign of our future destiny “in Christ.” For this reason, the Apostle Paul could write: “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (COL. 3:3) In his homily on the Ascension, St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) draws out some of the implications of this further:
In the same way as He came down, without changing place but condescending to us, so He returns once more, without moving as God, but enthroning on high our human nature which He had assumed. It was truly right that the first begotten human nature from the dead (Rev. 1:5) should be presented to God, as first fruits from the first crop offered for the whole race of men.
On account of our sins He was led to death, and for us He rose and ascended, preparing our own resurrection and ascension for unending eternity. For all the heirs of everlasting life follow as far as possible the pattern of His saving work on earth.
Those who live according to Christ imitate what He did in the flesh. Just as He died physically, so in time everyone dies, but we shall also rise again in the flesh as He did, glorified and immortal, not now but in due course, when we shall also ascend, as Paul says, for "we shall be caught up," he says, "in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (I Thess. 4:17).
(The Saving Work of Christ - Sermons by St. Gregory Palamas, p. 113-114)
The words of the “two men … in white robes,” (clearly angels) who stood by the disciples as they gazed at Christ being “lifted up,” and recorded by St. Luke (ACTS. 1:11), point toward something very clear and essential for us to grasp as members of the Church that exists within the historical time of the world:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
The disciples will remain in the world, and must fulfill their vocation as the chosen apostles who will proclaim the Word of God to the world of the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. They cannot spend their time gazing into heaven awaiting the return of the Lord. That hour has not been revealed: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority” (1:7). The “work” of the Church is the task set before them, and they must do this until their very last breath. They will carry out this work once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit – the “promise of my Father” - as Christ said to them (LK. 24:49). Whatever our vocation may be, we too witness to Christ and the work of the Church as we await the fullness of God’s Kingdom according to the times or seasons of the Father.
In our daily Prayer Rule we continue to refrain from using “O Heavenly King” until the Day of Pentecost. We no longer use the paschal troparion, “Christ is Risen from the dead …” but replace it from Ascension to Pentecost with the troparion of the Ascension:
Thou hast ascended in glory, O Christ our God, granting joy to Thy disciples
by the promise of the Holy Spirit; Through the Blessing they were assured that Thou art the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world.
I had quite an encounter with one of our parishioners last Sunday that I would like to briefly recall and share with you. I went to visit Dave Latorre, an older parishioner who has not been able to be present in church for many years now, so there are more than a few of you who do not know Dave. But Dave has been in the parish as a member before I arrived here many years ago. Be that as it may, I went to visit him at his nursing home in Green Hills. Presvytera Deborah accompanied me.
As we all know, nursing home facilities are rather dreary places in that the residents are most likely confined there for the rest of their natural lives; and thus for the most part in some state of decline or debilitating condition. Or, at least we could say that the atmosphere is not cheerful. One hopes that the facility is kept clean and that the staff are dedicated to offering the best care possible within the conditions they are working with. A staff worker who works with great care and compassion is to be highly commended because they know that they are not looking after patients who will not improve, but who, once again, are steadily declining. All in all, it is hard work, and the "rewards" are probably not apparently recognizable.
Dave was having lunch so we had to wait for awhile, but eventually we were able to take him back to his room and set things up for a short service with Holy Communion. Now Dave clearly has "dementia," yet at what stage or level I cannot say. I am pretty certain that he does not fully recognize me but he will greet me with a smile and say "Hi, Father," when I visit.
An encouraging phenomenon I have witnessed with more than one declining parishioner is that they are able to participate in the short service leading up to Communion. However poorly their memory is working, they "somehow" do retain a memory of the prayers of the Church. I commented on this recently at the funeral of Marie Sim. Thus, Dave was quite able to recite the Trisagion Prayers, the Creed and the Pre-Communion Prayers as well make the sign of the Cross at the appropriate times together with Presvytera and myself.
And here is where this all became a memorable moment.
Upon receiving Holy Communion, Dave was almost ecstatic with a kind of sincere and open-hearted joy. He let out a cry of deep satisfaction immediately upon receiving the Eucharist, and repeatedly exclaimed: "This is just so wonderful!" "I am so happy!" And, almost climactically: "This is one of the best days of my life!"
I can assure you that I am not recounting this for any sentimental or warm-fuzzy effect. Wherever this was "coming from" it seemed, well, very real. It does not matter if this was all result of what is "lacking" in Dave. It is not for us to judge the source of a legitimate experience. But Presvytera Deborah caught it all just right when she said: He was completely "in the moment." And being "in the moment" is a deep component of Orthodox spirituality.
To be honest, I will assume that Dave forgot about this experience by the time we took him back to the TV room and departed from his company. It is what it is. But, no reason to allow that to undermine the whole experience and our share in it. Yet, upon a bit more reflection, I found something here rather convicting. Am I - are we as a community of eucharistic communicants - "in the moment" when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ at the Liturgy? Or is it "business as usual" on Sunday morning before we get to our next planned activity? Is our mind elsewhere not only in the Liturgy but even as we are in the Communion line even though we just heard the solemn exclamation: "In the fear of God, and with faith, draw near!" How wonderful, or joyful, or meaningful is our "eucharistic experience?" (Over the years, I have seen parishioners/communicants who have received the Eucharist with tears in their eyes).
We are fully conscious and our faculties for the present are quite intact. But that does not guarantee anything. It is about the heart for: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21). Let's do our best to "be in the moment" whenever we are in the Liturgy and especially when we approach the Chalice to receive the Eucharist. As I like to say, it is all downhill from there. But that "hill" could be something like Tabor where we delight in the presence of the Lord.
A Samaritan woman came to Jacob's well in Sychar, a Samaritan city, at the same time that Jesus sat down by the well, being wearied by his journey. The evangelist John provides us with a time reference: "It was about the sixth hour" (JN. 4:6) - i.e. noon. The Samaritan woman had come to draw water from the well, a trip and activity that must have been an unquestioned daily routine that was part of life for her and her fellow city-dwellers.
The ancients had a much more active sense that water = life than we do today with the accessibility of water that we enjoy and take for granted: from the kitchen tap, the shower, or the local store. On the basic level of biological survival, Jacob's well must have been something like a "fountain of life" for the inhabitants of Sychar.
Therefore, it is rather incredible that she returned home without her water jar, a "detail" that the evangelist realized was so rich in symbolic meaning that he included it in the narrative recorded in his Gospel (JN. 4:5-42). And this narrative, together with the incredible dialogue embedded in it, is so profound that every year we appoint this passage to be proclaimed in the Church on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the fifth Sunday after Pascha. Why, then, would the Samaritan woman fail to take her water jar home with her?
Her "failure" was based on a discovery that she made when she encountered and spoke with Jesus by Jacob's well. For even though the disciples "marveled" that Jesus was talking with a woman (v. 27), Jesus himself began the dialogue with the woman perfectly free of any such social, cultural or even religious restraints. As this unlikely dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman unfolded by the well, it was revealed to the woman that Jesus was offering her a "living water" which was qualitatively distinct from the well-water that she habitually drank (v. 11). This "living water" had an absolutely unique quality to it that the Lord further revealed to the woman:
Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (v.13-14)
A perceptive and sensitive woman who was open to the words of Jesus, as the dialogue continued she responded with the clear indication that she had entered upon a process of discovery that would lead her to realize that she was speaking with someone who was a prophet and more than a prophet: "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw." (v. 15) Her thirst is now apparent on more than one level, as her mind and heart are now opening up to a spiritual thirst that was hidden but now stimulated by the presence and words of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus will now disclose to her one of the great revelations of the entire New Testament, a revelation that will bring together Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles:
But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (v. 23-24)
A careful reading of St. John's Gospel indicates that under the image of water, Jesus was speaking of his teaching that has come from God; or more specifically to the gift of the Holy Spirit. For at the Feast of Tabernacles, as recorded in JN. 7, Jesus says this openly to the crowds who had come to celebrate the feast:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water'." Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (7:37-39)
Overwhelmed and excited, inspired and filled with the stirrings of a life-changing encounter, the Samaritan woman "left her water jar, and went away into the city and said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ"?" (v. 28-29) It is not that the contents of her water jar was now unimportant or meaningless. That would be a false dichotomy between the material and the spiritual that is foreign to the Gospel. The Samaritan woman will eventually retrieve her forgotten water jar and fill it with simple water in fulfillment of her basic human needs. For the moment, however, she must go to her fellow city-dwellers and witness to Christ! They, in turn, will eventually believe that Jesus is "indeed the Savior of the world." (v. 42)
There are indeed innumerable "wells" that we can go to in order to drink some "water" that promises to quench our thirst. These "wells" can represent every conceivable ideology, theory, philosophy of life, or worldview; in addition to all of the superficial distractions, pleasures, and mind-numbing attractions that will offer some relief from the challenges and oppressive demands of life. For a Christian, to be tempted to drink the water from such wells would amount to nothing less than a betrayal of both the baptismal waters that were both a tomb and womb for us; and a betrayal of the living water that we receive from the teaching of Christ and that leads to eternal life. It is best to leave our "water jars" behind at such wells, and drink only that "living water" that is nothing less than the "gift of God." (JN. 4:10)
Admittedly, this is an older meditation that I have sent out more than once since initially writing it. But, we have new members in the parish; and our liturgical cycle remains, of course, unchanged; so hopefully there are some reflections found here that may seem to be worthwhile. As we have reached the midpoint between Pascha and Pentecost, we realize it all goes by rather quickly.
As Orthodox, we are "Paschal" and "Pentecostal" Christians. At least in theory. It is up to each and every one of us to also be so in practice.
Mid-Pentecost: “Glistening with splendor!”
Today finds us at the exact midpoint of the sacred 50-day period between the Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost. So, this 25th day is called, simply, Midfeast or Mid-Pentecost.
Pentecost (from the Greek pentecosti) is, of course, the name of the great Feast on the 50th day after Pascha, but the term is also used to cover the entire 50-day period linking the two feasts, thus expressing their profound inner unity. Our emphasis on the greatness of Pascha—the “Feast of Feasts”— may at times come at the expense of Pentecost, but in an essential manner Pascha is dependent upon Pentecost for its ultimate fulfillment.
As Prof. Veselin Kesich wrote:
“Because of Pentecost the resurrection of Christ is a present reality, not just an event that belongs to the past.” Metropolitan Kallistos Ware stated that “we do not say merely, ‘Christ rose,’ but ‘Christ is risen’—He lives now, for me and in me. This immediacy and personal directness in our relationship with Jesus is precisely the work of the Spirit. Any transformation of human life is testimony to the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. God constantly creates new things and glorifies Himself in His saints, in order to make it known that the Word of God became flesh, experiences death on the cross, and was raised up that we might receive the Spirit” (The First Day of the New Creation, p. 173).
Be that as it may, there is a wonderful hymn from the Vespers of the Midfeast that reveals this profound inner connection:
“The middle of the fifty days has come, beginning with the Savior’s resurrection, and sealed by the Holy Pentecost. The first and the last glisten with splendor. We rejoice in the union of both feasts, as we draw near to the Lord’s ascension—the sign of our coming glorification” (Vespers of the Midfeast).
Pascha and Pentecost “glisten with splendor” – what a wonderful expression! Yet, this very expression which is indicative of the festal life of the Church, may also sound embarrassingly archaic to our ears today. This is not exactly an everyday expression that comes readily to mind, even when we encounter something above the ordinary!
However, that could also be saying something about ourselves and not simply serve as a reproach to the Church’s less-than-contemporary vocabulary. Perhaps the drab conformity of our environment; the de-sacralized nature of the world around us, together with its prosaic concerns and uninspiring goals; and even the reduction of religion to morality and vague “values,” make us more than a little skeptical/cynical about anything whatsoever “glistening with splendor!” How can Pascha and Pentecost “glisten with splendor” if Pascha is “already” (though, only 25 days ago!) a forgotten experience of the past, and if the upcoming feasts of Ascension and Pentecost fail to fill us with the least bit of expectation or anticipation?
To inwardly "see" how Pascha and Pentecost "glisten with splendor" then our hearts must "burn within us" as did the hearts of the two disciples who spoke with the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus (LK. 24:32). At the empty tomb, the "two men ... in dazzling apparel" told the myrrh-bearing women to "remember" the things that the Lord had spoken to them while He was still in Galilee (LK. 24:6).
Only if we "remember" the recently-celebrated Holy Week and Pascha can any "burning of heart" that grants us the vision of the great Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost "glistening with splendor" possibly occur. With an ecclesial remembrance, only prosaic and drab events - or those that are superficially experienced - are quickly forgotten.
The Lord is risen, and we await the coming of the Comforter, the “Spirit of Truth.” These are two awesome claims!
The Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). This exhortation from the Apostle is a great challenge, for experience teaches us that “the things that are on earth” can be very compelling, immediate and deeply attractive, while “the things that are above” can seem abstract and rather distant; or that they are reserved for the end of our life as we know it “on earth.”
The Apostle Paul is exhorting us to a radical reorientation of our approach to life—what we may call our “vision of life”—and again, this is difficult, even for believing Christians! Yet, I would like to believe that with our minds lifted up on high and our hearts turned inward where God is – deep within our hearts – not only will the feasts themselves “glisten with splendor,” but so will our souls. Then, what the world believes to be unattainable, will be precisely the experience that makes us “not of the world.”
May the days to come somehow, by the grace of God, “glisten with splendor!” As it is written:
“The abundant outpouring of divine gifts is drawing near. The chosen day of the Spirit is halfway come. The faithful promise to the disciples after the death, burial and resurrection of Christ heralds the coming of the Comforter!” (Vespers of the Midfeast)
We have already reached the Fourth Sunday of Pascha, with the Midfeast approaching on Wednesday. The Fourth Sunday is known as the Sunday of the Paralytic based upon the “sign” of the healing of the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and the profound discourse to follow (JN. 5).
Archeologists have fairly recently discovered this pool demonstrating the accuracy of St. John’s description. The paralytic had taken his place among a human throng of chronic misery, described by the evangelist as “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed” (v. 3).
Being there for thirty-eight years and not being able to experience what were believed to be the healing capacities of the waters of the pool, the paralytic seemed resigned to his destiny. Then Jesus appeared. He saw the paralytic and He knew of his plight.
And then Jesus asked the paralytic a very pointed and even poignant question: “Do you want to be healed?” (v. 6).
Surprisingly, considering what must have been his own misery, the paralytic’s answer was less than direct and not exactly enthusiastic: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me” (v. 7).
Nevertheless, and even though the paralytic does not commit himself to an act of faith in the healing power of Jesus, he receives the following directive from Jesus: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And then, in that somewhat laconic style of describing the healing power of Christ that characterizes the Gospel accounts, we read simply: “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked” (v. 9). The “sign” is that Christ can restore wholeness to those in need.
I believe that we need to concentrate on the question Jesus posed to the paralytic: “Do you want to be healed?” (The King James version of the question is: “Wilt thou be made whole?”). For, if the various characters that Jesus encountered in the Gospels are also representatives or “types” of a particular human condition, dilemma, or state of being; then the question of Jesus remains alive in each generation and is thus posed to each of us today.
If sin is a sickness, then we are “paralyzed” by that sin to one degree or another of intensity. But do we really want to be healed of the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives? The answer seems obvious, even a “no-brainer,” but is that truly the case? Or, are we more-or-less content with continuing as we are, satisfied that perhaps this is “as good as it gets” in terms of our relationship with God and our neighbors?
Do we manage to politely deflect the probing question of Christ elsewhere, counter-posing a reasonable excuse as to what prevents us from exerting the necessary energy from our side? Our teaching claims that we must also contribute to the synergistic process of divine grace and human freedom that works together harmoniously for our healing. Perhaps it is easier and more comfortable to stay as we are – after all, it’s really not that bad - a position reflected in the noncommittal response of the paralytic. For to be further healed of sin will mean that we will have to make some changes in our life, in our interior attitudes and in our relationships. It certainly means that we will have to confess our faith in Christ with a greater intensity, urgency and commitment. None of that sounds very "convenient." Are we up to that challenge?
Actually, we could more accurately say that we have already been healed. That happened when we were baptized into Christ. (There are baptismal allusions in the healing of the paralytic by the pool of water).
Every human person is paralyzed by the consequences of sin, distorting the image of God in which we were initially created. Baptism was meant to put to death the sin that is within us. We were healed, in that baptism is the pledge to life everlasting, where death itself is swallowed up in the victory of Christ over death. For we are baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ.
So, with a slight variation, the question of Christ could also imply:
Do you rejoice in the fact that you have been healed, and does your way of life reflect the faith and joy that that great healing from sin and death has imparted to you?
Are you willing to continue in the struggle that is necessary to keep that healing “alive” within you?
Direct and simple questions can get complicated, often by the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives. We can then get confused as to how to respond to such essential questions. Every time we walk into the church we are being asked by Christ: “Do you want to be healed?” Responding with a resounding “Yes!” would be a “sign” of the faith, hope and love that are within us by the grace of God.
Among the Myrrhbearing Women, it is clear that Mary Magdalene is something of a "first among equals." In the Synoptic Gospels she is always listed first among the other women whose names are recorded by the Evangelists (MATT. 28:1: MK. 16:1; LK. 24:10). In the Gospel According to St. John, she is the only one of these remarkable women actually named by the Evangelist.
That St. John also knew the tradition of multiple women visiting the tomb of Christ "on the first day of the week" (JN. 20:1) is indicated by Mary Magdalene using "we" when returning from the tomb and excitingly telling the disciples what she/they discovered there, mistaken though she was as to the reason: "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know here they have laid him" (JN. 20:2).
And it is St. Mark and St. John who record the fact that she is the first of the women to actually see the Risen Lord (MK. 16:9: JN. 20:14). In addition, it is the Evangelist Mark who informs us that Jesus had "cast out seven demons" from Mary Magdalene (v. 9).
St. Mary Magdalene thus stands out among these outstanding, though self-effacing women, who are now known throughout the world wherever the Gospel is proclaimed. The Myrrhbearing Women were privileged to be the first human beings to discover the empty tomb, and the first as a body to behold the Risen Christ (MATT. 28:9).
At the Divine Liturgy yesterday we heard the account in St. Mark's Gospel about the role of the Myrrhbearing Women in the discovery of the empty tomb as we commemorate the Myrrhbearers on the Third Sunday of Pascha (MK. 15:43-16:8). This is the only Sunday during the paschal season that we hear from a Gospel other than St. John's.
However, I would like to return to St. John's Gospel for the purpose of this meditation and share a few words about the extraordinary encounter between the Risen Lord and Mary Magdalene recorded there (20:11-18). This is an encounter like no other. I recall the renowned British biblical scholar C. H. Dodd writing that this account in St. John's Gospel has no remote counterpart in all of the ancient literature of the Graeco-Roman world. It is absolutely unique.
At first, as recorded above, Mary Magdalene believed that the tomb was empty because "they have taken the Lord out of the tomb" (20:2). This was her "natural" reaction to the fact of the empty tomb. She then temporarily disappears from the narrative as we hear of the disciples Peter and John discovering the empty tomb, prompted by her troubling words. But after this discovery "the disciples went back to their home" (v. 17). Then, Mary appears again "weeping outside the tomb" (v. 11). When she stoops to look into the tomb she is surprised by the presence of two angels, who pointedly ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She again repeats her despairing belief that "they have taken away my Lord" (v.13). At this point "she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus" (v. 14).
And then that remarkable dialogue and encounter occurs.
At first Jesus will repeat the words of the angels: "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" (v.15) Still fixated on the mistaken belief that someone has removed the body of Jesus, Mary, for the third time repeats that assertion to "the gardener" hoping that he will cooperate in disclosing the whereabouts of the body of Jesus.
And then all is transformed "in the twinkling of an eye" when the Risen Jesus pronounces her name: "Mary" (v. 16). That is all that was necessary, and Christ prepared us for that immediate recognition upon hearing one's name pronounced:
"I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father ... "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand." (JN. 10:14, 27-28)
When the Risen Good Shepherd speaks her name she immediately recognizes His voice as foretold in the words above and she responds with the endearing title: "Rab-bo'ni!" (The evangelist parenthetically informs us that this means Teacher).
This encounter like no other is actually consummated through the seemingly simple pronouncement of a name and a title exchanged with both love and devotion between Christ and His disciple Mary Magdalene. I believe that this moment of recognition would be impossible to express in words. We can only bow our heads in silence and awe. Or, perhaps like the other Myrrhbearing Women, "trembling and astonishment" (MK. 16:8) will come upon us if we allow the full power of this encounter to enter our minds and hearts.
For Mary, bewilderment, despair and confusion give way to joy and regeneration. That the setting was a "garden" is no accident. Now, upon returning to the other disciples for a second time, a new message is delivered to them, for St. John tells us: "Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'" (v. 18).
At one point in this incredibly momentous morning, Mary Magdalene told the angels that "they have taken away my Lord." St. Thomas said when also coming to recognition of the Risen Lord: "My Lord and my God!" In these words, both of these saints made it very personal.
The encounter with Christ, regardless of the circumstances is always something deeply personal. Each unique human being has a unique relationship with Christ. We say that He is our Lord, but we equally say that He is my Lord. Therefore, I would like to quote again the deeply encouraging words of Fr. Alexander Men who, when commenting on the events of JN. 20, wrote:
"Therefore today, on this Paschal day, let each of you, returning home, carry in his heart this joy and the thought that the Lord has appeared to me, too. He is risen for me, and speaks for me, and remains with me, and will forever be as my Lord, as my Savior, as my God. May the Lord protect you!"
A pious tradition has St. Mary Magdalene greeting the Roman emperor Tiberius with the words "Christ is Risen!" These words reverberate to this day with the glorious "good news" of life out of death.