Dear faithful: let us rejoice in this feast. We come, not because we have righteousness, pure prayer, surpassing wisdom and complete piety. We come because we wish for Christ to give us Himself, the perfection of faith, the True Life, the Word that raises the dead. Christ is the Victor over Death, the vanquisher of all other victors. In our weakness we see death and a tomb; in the gift of faith and truth, we see glory and life eternal, not just as empty words, but the Word, Reason for all things, who greets us in the flesh: I have arisen.
Christ is Risen!
Fr. Elijah Mueller, 2015
Thank you! to all who have helped with singing, hosting, cooking, baking and sewing. Thank you to all who have come so faithfully. May all your work be accepted as a right offering, so that God might give you a true taste of the joy of the “day which the Lord has made,” so that your hearts might be filled with the warmth of Christ’s life-giving presence.
Tonight is the Matins of Holy Friday, one of the most important of all the services. We will listen to the 12 Gospel readings which recount the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We will meditate on the unspeakable greatness of his mercy and love, He who made all things, and performed glorious wonders for His people, now shares humiliation and death in the flesh, to perform the most mystical wonder, the breaking of death by death in his flesh.
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a Tree, (x3)
He who is King of the Angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in mocking purple.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan receives a blow on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a lance,.
We worship your Sufferings, O Christ
Christ shows us the new covenant. This covenant takes all the commandments, all sacrifice, the temple, God and all humanity in one, and puts this wonder in front of us. Christ’s humility: He Who Is, the Creator of water and all the elements washes the dirty feet of his disciples. Just like the woman; who tradition assumes must have been a great penitent because she goes to the extreme of wiping his feet with her hair. Let us be that completely poured out, and emptied as the woman, who knows what it means to follow the Master. She does not hold anything back. In the Gospel of John it is Mary the sister of Lazarus. Like Lazarus, she has already died, if not in body, then in spirit, so that she can stand with Christ at the Cross. This is our covenant, to be called from the stench of our selfishness and preoccupations, to die and rise with Christ.
The Betrayal is to reckon up the value of Christ. Because of one emotion or another, a love of pleasure, pursuit of fame or career, we hold back and value everything around Christ, and Christ himself. Maybe we ‘study,’ think of ourselves as disciples. But we know what price Christ has in our lives, the price of a slave—how can he serve me? How can I exchange him for all that is nearer to my heart? What association with Christ will cause us to reject him, even while the Church rings out the cock-crow of its hymns? This is our betrayal.
But sisters and brothers, let die now. We are supposed to have done that in baptism, and not rebuilt the old Adam. Like the one being illumined in baptism, let us be with Christ, be in Him. Do you unite yourself to Christ? Have you united yourself to Christ? I have united myself to Christ. Let us stand at his Cross, and worship Him as God, hearing the Gospels tell us of his saving Passion.
The tension over death and life, fasting and feast, in the Mystery of a couples’ marriage, reflects of the union of God and Humanity. It is part of the liturgical continuation of that Mystery. We fast and “separate for a season by mutual agreement,” because of an affirmation of life and the faith and hope in the resurrection. Fasting helps us to work the ground of our spiritual lives so that God can transform the blessed sexual life towards its eventual goal: the perfect gift of life which God gives in the resurrection.
Sex itself is supposed to be approached through abstinence at its very beginning (before marriage). We are not supposed to objectify the act for anything. Marriage is supposed to take place in a sacramental space of human relation which affirms God and the importance of all life as his gift. Marriage is the revelation of a sign of resurrection which is not perfected and completed by any human action or even by any human birth, above the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, who becomes firstborn of the dead.
Whether we have failed in one way or another around marriage, we can always turn to the fast for renewal of the faith which must define our sexual life with our husband or wife. We can put aside all objectification and the satisfaction of desire, even those that take place in our sacramental, blessed life with our husband or wife, to be purified in desire for Christ. Then we can greet Christ as the Bridegroom, who marries the Church through his cross.
The obedience of the Church is not to worldly power or male machismo, but to perfect outpouring of self-sacrificing love. God empties his omnipotence upon the cross, to give divine power to the weak and those who have been broken by sin.
As head of the Church, Christ teaches us to sign every sense with the cross. He teaches us to give up every reasoning that pulls us toward sin. As Church we join ourselves to him, we name ourselves with his name. He is the Reason of God, the Life and Word that calls us to Creation and to be re-created. Jesus Christ, the Name of the Lord, above all creation, has gone through our death, to give us the perfection of his Life. Let us leave our bridal chamber, to come to the unending Wedding Feast.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly; Gather the people, Sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and nursing babes; Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, And the bride from her dressing room. Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, Weep between the porch and the altar; Let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”(Joel 2:15-17)
Monastic life, too, affirms the life-giving aspects of marriage. But monasticism lays aside all other things in poverty in this life, so as to be enriched in the resurrection. Laying aside sexual procreation, the monastic seeks direct entry to the eternal Wedding Feast. Monastic life is about birth, it is baptismal: new birth of the monastic, new birth of virtue and renunciation of sex (as a fleshly “resurrection” ) so as to be an “only-begotten” son or daughter of the kingdom, offered up so that “God will provide.” Monasticism, or even celibate life in the world, gives up the partnership of husband and wife to acquire the perfection of spiritual children through obedience and humility, seeking dispassion, perfect faith and love.
Generally our tradition thinks most highly of the focus on God and the prayer of the ascetic, monastic figure. Lay people, married, or not very ascetic people in the world can achieve a little of this, but it comes with sudden flashes of the cross in our lives—illnesses, mental and spiritual troubles, financial woes, suffering of indignity. If we are already praying in readiness for these things, we bear these troubles knowing the need to cry out immediately for the grace of God. If we have been lax then we lose faith, we blame God and everyone else and we do not find that our cross has been placed near Christ. If our cross is near Christ’s, then we can do as we should: cry out like the wise thief “Remember me, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom!”
In addition to prayer and self-offering, we need to practice above all else in the world, hospitality and generosity (specifically mentioned in the marriage service). This superlative virtue is one of the great places where we are allowed to exceed the virtue of the monastic, but in fact fall short of the serious monastic who only has to give away one or two things, to give away all that they have. Without radical hospitality and generosity, we are the rich (or possessive and possessed) who cannot enter the kingdom.
Monasticism allows those who have not married, if they succeed in their calling towards the heights of dispassion, to practice spiritual procreation, entirely empty of any sex or passion. Like the Mother of God, their soul is united to God so that they can conceive virginally, through acting as guides in the monastic life, leading their sons and daughters to a new birth. This is the realization of the baptismal goal of the monastic. It is a non-sexual and adoptive role.
Godparents are called to this adoptive role, but it is usually a very worldly failure (check the etymology of ‘gossip’). This sort of adoptive procreation also takes place in the sacramental act of ordination: the priest, deacon or bishop gains an ancestry and lineage, which in a ‘Melchizedekian’ eternity, makes us all “cohanim,” priests. Likewise, the priesthood is also transferred to all Christians in baptism, and thus ties to Christ’s fulfilment of the pattern revealed to Moses, and the blessing of Abraham by Melchizedek. The fast and the feast in the life of a married couple plays on this tension between old and new, life and death, while the celibate and monastic function without the physical sign of union that is sex in marriage, but is a perpetual fast tied to the eschatological hope of becoming a perfected child of the Kingdom.
The soul of every Christin is to be a bride; but this is only properly played out in union with the Church, as mirroring the Church as the Bride of Christ. It is a spiritual application of the idea of marriage in the life of the celibate person. For the married couple this is imaged by the husband imaging Christ and the wife imaging the Church. However both of them are together Church and altar, serving and submitting to Christ. As altar, the two of them together form a throne for Christ who shapes them both in holiness. As a married couple they must work this together not separately or in isolation.
We have fasted. All of us, one way or another, are to have left the bridal chamber, our own bridal chambers, so as to ask God to spare us as his Bride, his Church. Where is our God? He comes as the Bridegroom. This is why we have left our bridal chambers in the fast—so as to be spared through the cross and to be able to enter the Wedding Feast of Christ’s resurrection, where we no longer labor for life in the midst of death, but rise to eternal life. Make us inheritors of your Kingdom, remember us when you come in your Kingdom, O Bridegroom.
So much of our Lenten journey is linked to monastic stories, saints and writings. Sometimes it is hard to figure out the application for us in the world. Asceticism is central and definitive for our spiritual life; it is our sign of the resurrection which follows our Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection. But the asceticism of the righteous before the resurrection of Christ was manifested in the hope of resurrection that signed and even passed the shadow of the cross over their married lives.
Some of us living in the world may be called to an asceticism which is a very direct sexual renunciation in the world. We are called to non-monastic celibacy. There are many righteous professions which would benefit greatly from the work of people who give themselves over, within a worldly context, to the pursuit of humility, prayer, fasting and final acquisition of dispassion and the pure love of God and neighbor.
However, for those of us who are married and in the world, our way is also ascetic. We still practice abstinence even within sexual relations, not rushing after self-satisfaction, limiting our sexuality to chaste fidelity to a single person—even cleansing our thoughts of the picture of any other, let alone more elaborate daydreams and fantasies or subjection to pornographic images or tantalizing advertisements—which so often are based on very little reality, and are planned to excite an appetite which cannot be satisfied. We do not seek to satisfy every strange and unnecessary fixation. We even must cleanse our minds largely of our picturing and distorting the image of our spouse, objectifying and desiring things, actions, and technical notions of ‘good sex’ which are not focusing truly and in a simple way on the person we love. But this commitment to our husband or wife is blessed because it is in hope of, or at least the ideal image of, all the saving ‘begetting,’ such as we see in the Old Testament, albeit in divinely perfected monogamous form.
Abraham’s hope in his “seed” is a hope in the resurrection, which is fulfilled in the begetting of his son, and even more fulfilled in Christ’s miraculous birth from Abraham’s offspring, and as his offspring. All the righteous figures of the Old Testament, when acting properly—beget not for the enjoyment of sex, or the pride of their own flesh, or just to manifest some kind of union, but in a hope of progeny which is in the deepest sense their self-offering to God. The offspring represent successful ‘union,’ in the physical sense. Not only Abraham offers his son to death in the hope of resurrection, but all the chosen people. This ‘sex’ which is so much greater than sex, is to fulfil the commands of God and hopes in life. We identify through this with sacrifice and the cross. We do not produce the ancestors of Christ, but we produce children that will be in Christ, and joined to that same faith in their lives; children who will be marked and signed with the cross and born from on high in Christ.
This cross in sexual life, points toward the ultimate destiny of all flesh to give up sex. This is why we have to practice through fasting, so that when the husband and wife rejoin, it renews the sense that this is an action which is done with the affirmation of life, and the means to make life, by the grace of God, at its heart. Thus it is also given up, in same the way that we are called to the cross and martyrdom. It is truly a martyrdom to know that the other that one loves, with whom one creates, or with whom one at least repeats and thus affirms the union needed for the creation of life, will die. We affirm our love now both in the physical act of sex, but also in the act of renouncing it in the knowledge that our deeper union will have to be in the spirit when we are parted. Even deeper will our union be when we are reunited in the kingdom of heaven, not for physical, sexual union, but for that perfect union in ‘angelic’ service of continual prayer. We will be united in ways beyond comprehension, in resurrection. The Resurrection is Life which is given once and for all, that can no longer be broken by separation from God, a life which needs to further resurrection through procreation.
So whether we are fasting or we come to the end of the fast, after having passed through the Cross and Resurrection and having our sense of sexuality changed by it, we are affirming life-giving union and the continuation of God’s material creation and witnessing to his saving resurrection. This a small work toward healing of the wound and the curse of our entry into this world of death, when we experience the cross (through fasting) in birth and the means of physically bringing about birth. We affirm life, even where so much of human history, with high infant mortality, terrible violence, and maternal mortality, would give little reason to speak so positively about ‘sex.’ Not just Christ’s birth is a miracle, but all birth is, despite all complications and tragedies that may occur; this is why it is blasphemous against both God and God’s image to demean this in any way through misuse or ridicule of the very importance of this means to make life with the blessing of God.
We wait for the Bridegroom, having put aside our own focus on the physical aspects of being a Bride or Groom, Husband and Wife, so that we can celebrate the perfect marriage of Christ and the Church. We wait for him as servants of the Wedding Feast. We know that as part of the Church, we also, each and every one of us, are united to him, to be raised to life in the New Jerusalem, the eternal Wedding Feast.
to be continued tomorrow.
See notice at http://www.antiochian.org/ and various other news sources. Patriarch Ignatius wrote a nice book called Resurrection and Modern Man that was published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. He received some of his education at St. Serge Theological Institute in Paris, and had connections to the theological scholars who taught there and at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. May his memory be eternal
Please pray for the sister of Niveen, Nisreen and family whose house was hit by the Israelis in their offensive against Gaza, as well as all the Palestinian Orthodox in Gaza and the West Bank.
On another note, the Orthodox presence and status quo in the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Anastasis, is once again under threat by the policies of the Israelis. Follow this link to hear a good Armenian lawyer explain about a water bill used to undermine the Church’s legal rights:
Ezekiel 9:4 is a prophecy of the sign of the Cross as a protection: “And the Lord said to him, “Go through the city, through Jerusalem and put a Tau [t] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over the abominations that are committed in it.” The people with this sign of the cross, who are busy with repentance, are preserved when Jerusalem is destroyed. These are the people who have besieged the city of their hearts and work to bring down their own pride with the help of God. These are the people who understand trials and tribulations in life not as unnecessary hindrances to pleasures and comfort, but as the “slight momentary affliction… preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison.” We are “baptized into Christ” and “have put on Christ” so that death has no dominion over us and we are victorious in the joy of our faith in Christ’s rising from the dead. Signing ourselves with the cross is a constant affirmation of the mystery of victory in the midst of the more (externally) obvious defeat: life in death; healing in sickness; exaltation in humbling; repentance which dispels the darkness of sin; quiet, peaceful dispassion which preserves our hearts from passions and emotional turmoil.
Let us sign ourselves as we begin our prayers with the sign of baptism, let us make on our forehead the sign of the cross, as on that day when we were baptized, and as it is written in the prophet Ezekiel. Let us not raise our hand only as far as the mouth or the beard, but let us rather bring it to our forehead, while saying in our heart: “We have signed ourselves with the seal!” While this is not of the same nobility as the seal of baptism, nevertheless, on the day when we were baptized, the sign of the cross was imprinted on the forehead of each one of us. Rule of Horsiesios (successor of St. Pachomios the Great)
If you want to wipe out the bad memories left in the mind and the multifarious attacks of the enemy, then arm yourself speedily with the recollection of our Savior and with the ardent invocation of his exalted name by day and by night, while sealing yourself often, both on the forehead and on the breast, with the sign of our Lord’s Cross. For as often as the name of our Savior Jesus Christ is pronounced and the seal of the Lord’s Cross is placed on the heart and the forehead and o the other members, the power of the enemy is indubitably quelled, and the wicked demons flee trembling from us. Nilus of Ancyra
from 3.17.09 bulletin
We all believe, as Orthodox Christians that we have been given the true light of the true faith. We understand that Orthodox Christianity means true worship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It means believing that the Son and Word of God became flesh and suffered the Cross and died for us, to raise humanity and reunite us to God in Him. But these truths are given to us, freely, even if we seem to be ‘finding it for ourselves’ as converts to the Faith. It is all a gift of the Holy Spirit. If we are raised in the Faith, it is even more a gift—we certainly didn’t, and can’t ‘earn’ or ‘deserve’ the blessing that we have been given.
So what do WE do to at least make our life in the Church real and correct? We must live a life that is changed, transformed by our Faith. That ‘life transformed’ begins with the ‘Church’.
What is the Church? It is not a building, or multiple buildings; or at least, it is not a building in the literal sense. The Church is the gathering together, mystically, of all true believers throughout time and space: it is the gathering of saints, people who live and have lived transformed lives. No saint ever started with perfection, except perhaps the Virgin Mary—the bodily source and image of the Church as humanity receiving and being sanctified in Christ. So we must begin, with our imperfect lives, to seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit in patience and humble peace. The Church takes us in, totally. The Church is the Body of Christ, and either we are in it always and everywhere; or we are fake, shallow, at best an existential self-contradiction. By baptism, we are obliged to live as ‘priests’, people who are, by covenant, responsible for the Church and its sanctity and worship of God.
We cannot begin to have our lives transformed if we think that Church is a thing held off at a distance to us; a place where we get certain feelings validated; a distant club which one has membership in; an occasional spiritual fueling station. The Church is with us always, because we are baptized, we are all part of the priesthood. The actual community that we belong to, should reflect this. When I go to the store, walk down the street, or browse through the stacks in the library, I should see people I know from Church and recognize that how I act, how I live, whether I have prayer in my heart, whether my life is set in order toward communion with God and my neighbor in Christ is a present and constant reality. If I think of other realities as above the spiritual concerns, I am leaving the mystical Church, which is the place and state of sanctification. If I treat the Church as a distant place which I go to and relate to as an individual, apart, even alone—then I am not working on being a part of a community or Communion of the people of God, raised up on high through the holiness of the Spirit into the heavenly kingdom.
In other words: go to Church where it will have most impact on your daily life. Go to Church with people you can have real relationships with. Go to Church where you can invite friends. Go to Church where you can go more often, where you can go to confession when needed, where you can be supported in times of need. Go to Church where you can have a real community. Go to Church where you can be who you really are and seek to become better with help that is as near and quick as the help of God when we call on him in need. Don’t hide out.
It’s easy to wall ourselves off from others. But if we want God to reveal his love, life, help and mercy to us, how can we think that we should be hiding and holding onto our own imperfection? If our life is revealed to God, it can be healed and made perfect by his unconcealed grace and mercy. The community of the local parish Church can help us to approach, be what we are supposed to be, and receive the sacramental reality of the mystical Church, the power of the Holy Spirit, which is transforming us to be more perfectly the Body of Christ.
Of course, there is much more detail to it than this, but we cannot begin any of that without going to a Church and being part of a community. So come to Church! You are welcome! God loves you and desires to see every spiritual blessing come to you… so that you might be transformed in union with Him.
from 10/4/09 Bulletin