O Clavis – 4th Advent Meditation

 Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel, qui aperis, et nemo claudit, claudis, et nemo aperuit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
 Key of David, and sceptre of the house of Israel, you open, and no one shuts, you shut, and no one opens: come, and lead the prisoner from jail, seated in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Orthodoxy says that when our first parents sinned, they condemned all of us to death: not out of guilt, mind you, but rather genetics.  If you are immortal, your children will be as well.  If you are mortal, however, your children will also die. We are in the shadow of death not because of some “stain of original sin”, but rather because we are the legitimate children of our parents.  More: we die because God’s mercy lets us die or else sin would go on forever. 

Jesus has trampled down death by death  it is death that becomes the gate of mercy by which we escape death, the real death: severance from God caused by sin.

In the shadow of death we all lived in fear: but now, freed, we see death as the gateway of life; as a babe in the womb may think of birth as a terror, but it is only the beginning, so death is for us: scary perhaps, but only the beginning of joy.
Jesus is the Key that unlocks this mystery. It’s totally not enough that Jesus was perfect, or that Jesus died “for our sins”. Jesus had to die as a human so that humans would never die again. 
Yes, of course, we die: the world dies, everything in this world dies.  (Genetics, remember?)  But death is no longer the end: it is the beginning.  “For thy faithful people, O Lord, life is not ended, but changed” as says the burial rite in the new form.  We are not taken from life, we are rather moved from life to life, from strength to strength, like sparks among the stubble. 
One can be tempted to see this in a “gnostic” light, where this life is not real (like in Plato’s cave) and the next life is real.  But no, this life is real. Death is real. The next life is more real.  We see through a glass darkly now, but we do, in fact, see.  The struggles of this world are real, the jail is real, the jailer is real.  We are in real danger of death – the real death, severence from God, if we die in our sins.
It’s just that our fear is unwarrented.
And Christmas is the end of all that.
All things work for the good of those that love the Lord.
And nothing – nothing – can sever us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

O Adonai – 2nd Advent Meditation

 Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

 Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

In singing about the House of Israel, it must be remembered: The Church is Israel.  In this hymn, the Church is not projecting Jesus back onto an Ancient Jewish Scene.  The Church is saying “This is what really happened, and other readings are wrong.”

The Church lays claim to the title “Faithful Remnant”.  As Israel was lost, leaving only Judah, so now, the unbelievers are lost: leaving only the faithful Israel who follow the Messiah of God.  And so, the same God who was in the bush that didn’t burn, who gave the law on Sinai, is now the God whose fire burns in the womb of the Virigin yet she is not consumed, and who, himself, gives the law in the Sermon on the Mount.  As Jesus was seen as the unspoken Wisdom of God who orders all things, here he is the very Action of God who does all things.

In the Byzantine rite of Matins we sing “God is the Lord who has revealed himself to us.”  The revelation of God is God’s own business.  But he has entrusted the experience of that revelation, and the preaching of it to his people, the Church.  We find in that Revelation that God is the Almighty One, the Actor, the First Mover: but he comes in response to our cry.

As I wrote last time, the doing of Liturgy in Community, of Life lived in that liturgy is as of a Dance before the Throne of God, with God.  A dance requires a leader and a follower. But who is who? My Sunday School Teacher, Jeannette, used to say “The Holy Spirit is a Southern gentleman.  He wants to love you, but he waits for you to invite him to.”  God’s outstreached arm waits for us to call him.  He may only come as he chooses, but he will only come when we pray.  This is the error of the world: that it doesn’t want what it is offered.

When we call for the Almighty Fire of God, we get a helpless babe in a manger.  The world wants lightings and earthquakes.  We offer dirty diapers and breastfeeding. This is the Almighty Arm of the Creator of the universe: a tiny hand wrapped around your finger with surprising strength.

Israel means “Wrestles with God”. Let us read “wrestle” as “dance”:  what will you dance with the tiny clasp on your forefinger?

O Sapientia – 1st Advent Meditation

A blessed Advent! For my friends in the Western Ecclesial traditions, a little explanation: the Eastern Pre-Nativity Fast starts today. Advent is, of course, a Western Name, but we call it the Advent Fast here in America’s mostly-convert communities. Yes it is a bit longer than Western Advent, but for what it’s worth Advent is also a fast, like (or close to) the fast of Lent. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is treated to a sumptuous feast by his host who, in response to the compliments, reminds his guest, “It is a fast.”  For Orthodox Christians of the Western Rite, Advent is a period of fasting (reduced food intake) and abstinence (from flesh meat) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

This is the first of my seven Advent Meditations for this year.  It’s an annual practice, and it helps the Pre-Christmas focus. The meditations, as always, take a starting place the Great O Antiphons that are recited on the nights leading up to Christmas in the monasteries of the West.

Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter, suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

Wisdom, who proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, reaching out mightily from end to end, and sweetly arranging all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.

I was reminded on Friday that the Wisdom of God is Jesus, the Pre-incarnate Logos: when the Word is spoken, the Silent Wisdom becomes the Verbum, the Word of God, reaching out mightily to order all things from Alpha to Omega, from End to End. There is nothing that is not God’s action through his word.

But humans… now: we can get it wrong and, let’s face it, the Church is filled with humans who will, often get it wrong.  We pray for wisdom (Sophia = Jesus) to teach us the way of prudence.

Orthodoxy is very circumspect.  We don’t have one man to be omnipotent in the crafting of rules. We don’t even – officially – teach that the Ecumenical Councils, themselves, are infallible: there are many actions of the councils that are, essentially, ignored. (Have you seen anyone forced to Abstain from Communion for 10 or more years while praying on their knees in the back of the Church?) Orthodoxy is a religion of prudence. While this saint or that elder may, himself, be very strict or very free with his spiritual children, it is not the saints that are infallible, in their teachings, but rather the Church, herself.  And the Church speaks most clearly in her Liturgical Texts, both east and west, in her prayers. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief, or “As you pray so you believe”.  Only the Apostles’ writings to their Children carry the weight of law (as the New Testament) but even then, the Orthodox Church is not a “Bible Church” because she wrote the Bible.  The Bible is there for the application of it to the lives of people.  There is no one place to point and say: believe all that and you’ll be Orthodox.

Orthodoxy is a life – life in communion.  Orthodoxy – East and West – is liturgical life.  Liturgy as  a way of life is, it must be admitted, sloppy.  What one parish does, the other doesn’t. What one saint admires, the other admonishes. Basil loved verbosity, Chrysostom brevity.  The former, however, was brief in the pulpit while the latter was quite the opposite!  Seraphim Rose (whom many regard as holy, if not clearly a saint) could be seen as quite the controversial convert whom some forbid to their enquirers.  Mt Athos is either the holiest place on earth or a place to send all the single men in your parish just to keep them out of trouble.

I like rules, truth be told. Rules are the same for everyone. They are black and white. They are clearly lined up along the wall to prevent you from escaping.  Liturgy, however, is designed to give you something to do if you don’t wander away.  Stand here – and do this.  Not, “DON’T DO THAT!!!!” Rules do, in fact, make life easier: but they are not living. 

Liturgy is living: it is a dance before the Throne of God the Father with God the Son, conducted by God the Holy Spirit living and breathing in all of us.  It is confession and communion where my sins become the percussion session, where the absolution is the brass, and where my prayers, coupled with the prayers of the priest and all the church, is the strings and the woodwinds. And we dance.

Orthodoxy is life – not a rule book.  It must be lived in community, in liturgy: this is why we pray for wisdom and prudence in Advent.

I pray for a blessed Advent Fast for all of us, East and West.  Meditation #2 will be posted on the 20th.