O Oriens

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O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Dawn, splendor of eternal light, and sun of justice, come, and shine on those seated in darkness, and in the shadow of death.
This verse gets sung at sunset on the Longest Night of the Year. Light is a big part of the symbolism for this season. While there are different theories for the reason ranging from Jewish traditional piety to aggressively taking over another religion’s holiday, there can be no denial of the liturgical import of the increasing darkness in December and the birth of light symbolised by the winter solstice. Though, sure, this makes no sense at all in the Southern Hemisphere where it’s actually the Summer Solstice, but here in the North, this makes a lot of sense. And so this prayer for light is uttered in the darkness – mindful also that the Great O Antiphons were sung at vespers, in the darkness.
The dawn of God in our life is the beginning.
Step 11 sounds this out:
  • Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.
We are praying for God to come into our lives and show us what to do – and to give us the awakening we need, as well as the will to move forward. That line “praying only for knowledge of His Will for us” is confusing: far far too often we might hear of prayers that we’ll “Get to win the lottery if it be Thy Will, Heavenly Father.” Or, “Lord, let me marry him, if you will it!” Or, my favourite, “Lord, let us XYZ according to thy will”, which means, essentially, let us do what we want to do and let us be deluded into thinking we have you on our side: you hear this a lot in prayers for soldiers and speeches by political leaders who talk about “Governing according to God’s will”
Fr Joseph once told me we already know what God’s will is.
1 Timothy 2:3-4
This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
And Donald made it clear to me once, telling me a story about Will Campbell, that the most radical (overthrowing, revolutionary, etc) verse in the Bible was 2 Corinthians 5:19. Namely, that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
The full passage is:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
What is God’s will? That all should be saved.
What is God’s will? That we should be ministers of this reconciliation.
There is no other will for us.
I’m clear that God’s will towards this universal reconciliation does take different forms for each of us: but it’s not God’s will that I buy a house unless it leads to the reconciliation of the world. It’s not God’s will that I join the armed forces, unless it leads to the reconciliation of the world. It’s not God’s will that I marry that person over there unless it leads to the reconciliation of the world.This is the 12th Step happening.

  • 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The action of Reconciliation is the 12th Step. The restoration of the Net, the inviting of others into the Kingdom. The saving of thousands around you by the acquisition of the Spirit of Peace. 

In other words: there is no plan beyond salvation. The details are up to us. No choice should be made “with eyes to the future”, or with profit in mind or even wondering if there will be food on the table. No plan can be made unless this one question is asked: Is this choice, this plan, this job, this brunch date, this last YouTube posting, going to lead to the reconciliation of more of the world to God; of ourselves with each other?
Jesus points us this way: Love God and Love Neighbour are the same thing, and as we pray for God’s coming in Advent we need to know that God is coming to us every day in the lives of those people around us – on the Subway, on the Highway in the morning commute; in the office, in the school, in the shops of our daily life; in the beloved friend, the spouse, the absolute stranger we meet on the street. We need to see God and be reconciled to him. This is the dawn from on high breaking upon us.
The Church of England’s Common Worship Daily Prayer cycle has these two wonderful Advent prayers that point us in the right direction
Evening
Blessed are you, Sovereign God, creator of light and darkness, to you be glory and praise for ever. As evening falls, you renew your promise to reveal among us the light of your presence. May your word be a lantern to our feet and a light upon our path that we may behold your coming among us. Strengthen us in our stumbling weakness and free our tongues to sing your praise.
Morning
Blessed are you, Sovereign God of all, to you be praise and glory for ever. In your tender compassion the dawn from on high is breaking upon us to dispel the lingering shadows of night. As we look for your coming among us this day, open our eyes to behold your presence and strengthen our hands to do your will, that the world may rejoice and give you praise.
Both ask that God reveal his presence among us – in the eyes of those whom we meet. 

O Clavis

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O 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.
O 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.
The Key of David opens the Gate of Heaven and Hell, it is the Key of Peter. It’s the sign Jesus gave to the 12 Apostles of the Authority of the Church to name his forgiveness before the world. Yet as the Key of David, it is Christ, himself. 
Beyond our usual sins, what holds us back is the realisation that we have sinned against others. There is no sin which is open-ended: every sin is a damaged relationship. There is no sin which is against myself, alone: there must always be another party. Indeed, in the New Creation, there is no sin that is “simply” against God: all sins damage a real, personal relationship between us and others – God included. When I fail to love God, I’m not loving my neighbour and vice versa. My sin damages the net of relationships that is drawing us all to heaven. Every sin is like the Original Sin.
When we take an inventory of our deeds, as we did in yesterday’s post, and find the deeds wanting we may still be trapped in sorrow and guilt because we realise: we have damaged relationships with other people.

One of the most moving things ever to happen to me was a phone call at 8AM in the morning from a person I’d not seen in several years. He had called, however, months before to rant and rave about some mutual enemies, to berate our choices and to lament our loss of connection. In those days you could find someone’s number after a few years by calling 411 and just asking. It was a disturbing phone call to get:he was angry and hurt and I was someone he could talk to, I guess. To be honest, as much as I missed my friend, I was happy when the call was over. But the second phone call, at 8AM was a bit of a surprise. He announced, without knowing who I was, that the previous phone call was made when he was drunk, and that he was calling me because my number was on his phone bill from that time period. Who was I and would I forgive him?

He was dealing with Step 8 and 9…

  • 8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. 
  • 9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. 
  • 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. 

Sins are interpersonal. No matter how many times we go to confession, it is the interpersonal that matters.

When I left the Episcopal Church for Orthodoxy, I spent a good deal of time berating my former home until one day Bishop Seraphim told me to stop. He reminded me that those people loved me. They had done nothing wrong to me and, in fact, had led me to the next phase of my journey. Vladyka said to me, “There is grace before and behind.”

And I knew that I had to go and ask forgiveness. I called a friend and asked him to lunch and asked forgiveness of him – and of the community.

At another time, in my early twenties, I confessed shoplifting to a priest who asked me to return the items shoplifted…

It’s not that you have to do something in order to be forgiven. It’s that you have to live the forgiveness. Step 8 says “become willing to make amends” and Step 9 says we have to make amends “wherever possible” unless to do so would only further damage the relationship. You know places like that, no? Things that we needn’t bring up anymore… sins that to bring up would only make a greater harm. We’ve seen this in the child abuse scandals in other churches where to bring up the sins of the past is to relive them and damage others. We’ve seen it in South Africa, where Abp Tutu’s grace-filled Truth and Reconciliation committees only required that one say the truth… no matter how hard it was.

Christianity puts us in an odd place because it’s not about revenge, it’s not about “mking sure you get yours”, it’s about healing relationships.

So we must move forward – not backwards.

The key of David unlocks the doors forward and closes the doors to the past. We’re called to move forward, out of darkness. Jesus leads us, too. We’re able to lean on him to find the courage and the love to do these things.

Step 10 points out the crucial thing, though: we have to keep doing them. The Key of David, the Gate of Heaven and Hell, is the “Key of Peter”. It’s the sign Jesus gave to the 12 Apostles of the Authority of the Church to name his forgiveness before the world. And the way to do that is confession. Jesus is the Key… and he shared his authority with the Church, via the Apostolic Succession. Your priest wields that authority. “I absolve you in the name…” it is Christ, himself, speaking to you out of the darkness.

And having done so, we need to keep confession going. Confession is not a once and once only action: it is an on-going process of life reform. It is appropriate in Advent to take time out for a life exam and a sacramental confession, but, again, Advent is not a time of the year so much as it is a symbol. And so we are reminded now that confession is always. We must appeal to the Key of David for the grace to move forward.

And he gives it.

O Radix

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O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, who stand as a sign for the people, kings stand silent in your presence, whom the nations will worship: come to set us free, put it off no longer.

Picking up the 12 steps, again, with a bit of overlap from the last time, we’ve realised things were a mess. We’ve realised, in fact, that the mess is our fault and now, we’ve admitted all that. And we’ve asked for help from something we don’t quite yet understand.
  • 5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • 6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • 7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Come and set us free: put it off no longer!
There is a poem by George Herbert, called “The Collar“, wherein the poet is yelling and screaming at God. And, at the end, God has heard everything and says, “My Child…” and the poet turns and say, “Lord?”
Recovery is such: when we realise the mess we are in, we sometimes still do not like the answer. We must come, in fact, to that moment of silence before the Root of Jesse. He doesn’t mind the ranting, he doesn’t mind the raving, but there is that moment when God gets his turn to speak, a moment of silence. It is the moment of revelation in our recovery. Having admitted that everything was broken, we hear God say, “My child…”
We have to be ready: God will remove it all – painfully, slowly, and not without all possible love and tenderness. But it still hurts. We don’t like this in our word today: we think anything that hurts must be bad, must be stopped. We melt like snowflakes before pain so much so that even hearing someone disagreeing with us can be called a “micro aggression” and you’ll be treated as if you hit someone. We don’t like pain: so we run away from a God who wants us to change. God says, “My  child, sit still…”
Advent, this season of waiting, is this moment of silence. It is, I think, the time when all of the world can hear God say, “My Child…” to each of us, individually. I don’t mean Advent, the liturgical season, however: the Church year is an Icon of our salvation. Each of us goes through Advent on her own terms. Each of us, eventually, comes to the stable when God says to him, “My Child…” and we each finally answer, “Lord?”
And then we can say, “come and set us free – and wait no longer!”
There is another poem, by John Donne, that speaks of this process rather differently. We’ll get to that next time and I promise it will not be late! But after God removes our short-comings, there is something more important for we are not set free for ourselves: Christianity is not about getting out of hell. It’s about getting into heaven. And, for all that it’s been a hard row to hoe so far, it only gets harder!

O Adonai

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O 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.

O 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.

The way the last Antiphon connected with the 12 Steps drew me back again today as I mediated on O Adonai. I see an overlap in Step Three, and then Steps Four and Five tie in nicely.
  • 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  • 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
“Adonai” is the word used in place of the Divine name. The implication here is an invocation of YHVH, the One who Is, “I AM, That I AM”. God as we understand him – do any of us understand God? Personally, I find great comfort in the phrase “The one who is”, or “the Existing One” as it is sometimes translated. It’s a curious phrase when heard out of context – ie, without the understanding of its source. I heard it a lot in Eastern liturgy before I understood what it means. May “The one who is” or “the existing one” or “the Great I AM” bless us. And, in the liturgical context, as in this Antiphon, that title was applied to Jesus. This Jesus, the Great I AM, is he whose incarnation appeared in type to Moses in the Burning Bush: the Fire of Divinity moving in concert with the flesh of humanity.
Ultimately, the only way to understand God – as with any person – is to enter into conversation with that person. As God called Moses into fellowship at the Burning Bush, so God calls us (all humanity) into Fellowship in the incarnation of Jesus. Some images of Mary holding Jesus in her arms are called icons of The Burning Bush.
The traditional (Eastern and Western) understanding of the actions of God in the Jewish Scriptures are that they are actions of the Son through whom the Father acts: the Son is the Creator. The Son is the one who walked with Adam in the cool of the evening; and the Son is the one whom Jacob saw above the ladder, etc. This method of Reading Jesus back into the Hebrew Scriptures is confusing to some but entirely based on the faith that Jesus is the Promised One. This is God as we understand him in the only way we have – ie in God’s revelation to us.
And this Jesus is the one revealed the Law on Mt Sinai.
“Making a searching and fearless moral inventory” is not about legalism: it is about realising that I am weak. One of the cool tools available for us in the Christian tradition (East and West) is the practice of fasting and abstaining from certain foods at certain times. It’s not because these foods are evil, per se, or even “unclean”. The whole point is to train the body to do what is wanted, rather than to constantly give into cravings or promptings to indulge. The revelation of the law on Mt Sinai, even though it can give rise to microscopic legalisms (see following) is, essentially, a training programme as Paul says.
But as we’re “making a search and fearless moral inventory” we need to hear the voice of Grace. The first rule of fasting and abstinence is not to (eg) avoid meat on Fridays, but rather to eat all things sat before you with thanksgiving to God.
I remember once sitting in Fr Victor’s dining room during a fasting period. Matushka Barbara made us coffee and sat it down with heavy cream. I asked for creamer… and got a loving lesson in hospitality from the two of them.
Once, during Lent, a woman brought lox to a church supper and I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to eat it or not. What I did do was judge her for bringing the fish.
The law revealed on Sinai is a temptation to get hung up on pork and shrimp, sex, and clothing styles. The law is a temptation to judge others for their lack of keeping or their imperfections in keeping.
But the law – the “searching and moral inventory” – is only applicable in the first person. I am the only sinner I know.
Once during Advent someone brought me a plate of deviled eggs over which I worried rather a lot. I thought about giving the eggs away, but I ended up serving them at dinner and I ate one. I mentioned this to my confessor (Fr. David) who told me, “I never want to hear anything about food in confession again.”
To make a sin out of something that is no sin at all is to trip up on legalism. We can not admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” if we are straining at legal gnats or swallow planks of mumbo jumbo. We cannot admit “our wrongs” if we’re hung up on judging others. This is actually one place where I depart from many modern sorts of Rehab that are willing to blame parents (for “spoiling” the child or for abusing her), friends or family (for enabling) – and to judge them for it. I can’t confess the wrongs of my friends or family – nor can I judge them for such.
When I hold myself (and only myself) up to the code of Law revealed to Moses on Sinai, I’m without excuse: for I have failed on every point – especially the two important codes to Love God and Love Neighbour. I have no excuse or prayer in this matter but to beg for redemption.

O Sapientia


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O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter, suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O 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.
The first step is admitting you don’t know.
In all Twelve-step Programmes, the first three Steps are:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over This Thing and that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
The first Great O Antiphon condenses the first three steps into a prayer for wisdom. From the beginning we admit that we don’t know what to expect. We need wisdom.
This antiphon echoes this Eastern Rite Prayer, used at the beginning of all services in that tradition:
O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: Treasury of blessings and giver of life: Come, dwell within us and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one!
Notice that the antiphon says God’s Wisdom “orders all things”, the Heavenly King is “everywhere present and filling all things”. Why is it then that the Omnipresent King must be invited to dwell in us, the Omnipotent Wisdom must be invited to come to us? Why are we the only part of Creation where God is Not? In the traditional story, it’s called “original sin” but that phrase comes with a lot of baggage: a good answer to think about is an addiction. Humans are addicted to the idea we can do it on our own. And over and over again we try and fail. The only self-made man (or woman) is either willingly or unwillingly blind to the presence of others and the action of God (these are the same thing, here). The only self-made man is delusional.
But, my! How we do love this delusion. America is founded on it – and we call it “the American Dream”.
Like drugs, it makes us feel strong and able to control the world around us. Like drugs, the delusion of self-sufficiency creates in me a masturbatory fantasy that all I am is all a product of me, myself and I – even covering up the presence of the drug! Like drugs, the delusion of self-sufficiency leads each who partakes down the path to Solipsism, the point that only I exist, all else is a product of my imagination. Eventually (quickly) it leads to the idea that I am God.
And then it goes downhill from there: Chaos ensues in and around the life of the self-sufficient man or woman who will admit no one as her equal. She becomes the center of her own universe, forgetting that there are, actually, other people here who are not extensions of oneself. Pain. Violence and abuse follow.
And in the end, insanity – both clinical and experienced.
And we see the product of this insanity around us: greed, abuse of power, selfishness, lack of love, lack of concern (and, more insidiously, self-interest disguised as love and concern). The world is now – and has nearly always been – falling into unmanageable chaos because of our illness.
Before I can utter the prayer of Wisdom’s Antiphon, I have to decide that there is, in fact, something greater than me. I have to admit not only that I am not all powerful – but that something else is. The first step is admitting there’s a problem: it’s not a diagnosis, but rather a confession. I may not know what the problem is, exactly. But I can easily see the effects. And having tried everything else, I’ve decided to give up and ask for help.
O, Heavenly King….
O, Wisdom from on High…
This is the first step.
We can not get to the virtue of Prudence – knowing when and how to act in the right manner – until we admit that we do no know, and need instruction. In another context, the scriptures urge us not to worry about what to say – for in the right moment, the Holy Spirit will tell us. Such is prudent speech, and such would be prudent action as well: not planned out, black and white thinking but in-the-moment choices for charity and grace. Not rigidity but openness. This flexibility and dance is the opposite of the uptight control of of the addict for whom any possibility of chance is a threat. It’s a mutual dance, however: as in rehab, one addict in denial throws the entire community off-balance.
Theologically it is also important: the NT stories are filled with people unable to recognise Jesus as the Messiah because they were expecting someone else. This is especially an issue today. Most people are sure they know who Jesus is…
Larry Norman’s “The Outlaw” takes us on this road:
some say He was an outlaw that He roamed across the land
with a band of unschooled ruffians and a few old fishermen
no one knew just where He came from or exactly what He’d done
but they said it must be something bad that kept Him on the run
some say He was a poet that He’d stand upon the hill
and His voice could calm an angry crowd or make the waves stand still
that He spoke in many parables that few could understand
but the people sat for hours just to listen to this man
some say He was a sorcerer a man of mystery
He could walk upon the water He could make a blind man see
that He conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread
that He talked of being born again and raised people from the dead
some say a politician who spoke of being free
He was followed by the masses on the shores of galilee
He spoke out against corruption and He bowed to no decree
and they feared His strength and power so they nailed Him to a tree
The last verse is the most important to his song, but I’ll leave it off with this comment: when confronted with a bunch of people who claim to know who Jesus is, it might be better to ask him yourself. We are all addicted to our ideas of who Jesus MUST be – but I’m comfortable saying what I’ve always said on this matter: if only it is true that God loves us and *wants* to love us more, then ask… and you’ll know.
The prayer for wisdom is admitting we don’t know.
It’s the right place – the only place, to start.

The Empirical Bogey (O Oriens)

Originally published in 2015, this essay is part of a series I used to do annually on the Great O Antiphons of Advent. This Verse will be sung tonight at Vespers and, since this night is the Longest Night, and tomorrow is the Dawn of Summer’s Advent, we sing. “O Dawn”. The church knows when the solstice is, certainly, although it has nothing to do with the date of Christmas. Many parts of the liturgical year are tied (officially or not) to the natural cycle of the northern hemisphere: not just major holidays, but also fasting on the quarter days, the choice of which feast in a Saint’s Life is more important, etc. The liturgical cycle sanctifies time rather than obliterating it. We are manifesting heaven on earth sacramentally, not escaping earth and fleeing to “realms of spirit.” The physical world is being saved, not ignored.


O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.

O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

This is my favourite of the Great O Antiphons, for entirely non-liturgical reasons: this verse is one of several paraphrased by the Orthodox Anglo-Saxon Poet, Cynewulf in his long poem Crist or, in modern English, Christ.  In Anglo Saxon and in English, the lines run:

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended.
Hail Earendel brightest of angels,
over Middle Earth sent to men.

It was this text that gave J.R.R. Tolkien the name and purpose of his character, Eärendil the Mariner. Oddly enough I learned about the Great O Antiphons (back in 1982 or 83) by reading about this connection with Tolkien and then doing research. That was before I had been exposed to western liturgy beyond Novus Ordo and late 70s ECUSA. It was the dawn of a new world for me – connecting Tolkien’s world that never was with parts of our world that were no longer.

Tolkien and his fellow writer, C.S. Lewis, knew that part of our modern problem is that our world is being destroyed – now, almost a century after their friendship, our world is nearly totally gone. We used to live in a world peopled by angels and located in the middle: not geographically, but mentally, spiritually, between heaven and hell. Now we are more than ever trapped in time, stranded between the past that cannot be and the future that is never. The religion of our culture, Scientific Nihilism, has washed away all connection, all sense of a possibility of connection, replacing a Transpersonal God with what C.S. Lewis called “The Empirical Bogey:”

…the great myth of our century with its gasses and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder… its flat superlatives, its clownish amazement that different things should be of different sizes, it’s glib munificence of ciphers.

We pretend we have discovered the really awesome parts of the universe, when, in fact, all we have done is let our mind’s impression of the Speed of Light create in us a false sense of awe at mere numbers; numbers which we ourselves invented and to which we attach some sort of quasi-religious content. We become over-awed by generating the emotions within ourselves at our own inventions, as a child might, looking too fondly at a sand castle she has built on the beach.

But we have discarded the Created Order: the reality that is there, no matter how much we ignore it, or imagine we’ve surpassed it. We need the Dawn to show to us all of this.

We’ve got darkness and death again running parallel to light and justice. In the traditional liturgy this gets sung at Vespers on the 21st of December: the Solstice, the return of the Sun. Singing this verse creates the linking of Christ with the rising Sun, very literally in time and space.

A certain sort of political activist will often invoke Jesus as a supporter of “justice”. They do this without irony despite the fact that they would reject a vast majority of what Jesus stood for. They would certainly never call his teachings “Justice”. They make this rejection by saying that Jesus was merely human and often wrong based on the cultural biases of his time. But they are certain that any “outcast” calling for “justice” today would be supported by the Jesus they have invented as easily as science invents big numbers. Justice, in this political dialect, usually means “supporting my political causes and damning my opposition”. Jesus is not invoked as in this Antiphon, as being, himself, the Sun of Justice. God – Jesus – in his person – is Justice.

The Sun of Justice is a line taken from the Prophecy of Malachias 4:1-4

For behold the day shall come kindled as a furnace: and all the proud, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall set them on fire, saith the Lord of hosts, it shall not leave them root, nor branch. But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health in his wings: and you shall go forth, and shall leap like calves of the herd. And you shall tread down the wicked when they shall be ashes under the sole of your feet in the day that I do this, saith the Lord of hosts. Remember the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, the precepts, and judgments.

Ecce enim dies veniet succensa quasi caminus: et erunt omnes superbi et omnes facientes impietatem stipula: et inflammabit eos dies veniens, dicit Dominus exercituum, quae non derelinquet eis radicem et germen. Et orietur vobis timentibus nomen meum sol justite, et sanitas in pennis ejus: et egrediemini, et salietis sicut vituli de armento. Et calcabitis impios, cum fuerint cinis sub planta pedum vestrorum, in die qua ego facio, dicit Dominus exercituum. Mementote legis Moysi servi mei, quam mandavi ei in Horeb ad omnem Israel, praecepta et judicica. 

The Justice that Jesus offers is only for those that fear God and do all that he commanded through Moses: they who do so shall tread down all the proud folk who do wickedly as ashes under their feet. But you can’t have God’s Justice for you to do something God has commanded you not to do, for there is no Justice beyond God’s law.

Here again we are being presented with the Empirical Bogey. We are convinced that our minds can discover things and then we invest those things with quasi-religious value. The new Jesus we have at last discovered in our wisdom supports us, not those stodgy religious sorts. Freedom, we have at least discovered in our wisdom, is not “the Free human being who is most himself in the will of God” but rather “I can do what I want.” The Evil One makes us hate what is good for us and love what is bad for us. In fact this is such a good trick of his, that he makes us think the bad stuff really is us. Thus Justice does not mean justly following God’s law and creating civil laws that enable others to do so as well. Justice means, “I can do what I want and you can be punished for thinking, saying, or living as if I shouldn’t do it.

Which is to say that Jesus didn’t teach a “justice” that would have been recognized as such by anyone marching in our streets today. In fact, Jesus colluded with the unjust systems of his day: paying taxes, respecting civil authorities. He makes it rather clear that those authorities would not be there (just or not) if God had not put them there. In the matter of “judge not”, God will judge authorities that act outside of his divine Justice. That’s not for us to worry about (unless you happen to be in political office). Our job, as Christians, working our our salvation in fear and trembling, is to live in God’s Just Law, no matter what the world lives in. Paul, writing to Philemon, does not challenge the system of slavery in the Roman world, but rather he tells Philemon to act in God’s Justice towards his brother in Christ, the slave Onesimus, suggesting even that Philemon will do more (following God’s Love) than Paul even suggests in his letter. Paul doesn’t protest in the streets to change the laws: but he reminds Christians that they have a higher law to follow

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

So it is with us, today looking at the Antiphon, and for all time. We know that Justice comes from God in Jesus very person. Our secular laws, as such, mean precious little if they do not reflect this. They can be ignored as so many cardboard cutouts. The traditional prayer for civil authorities from the Russian Prayerbook makes this clear:

Save, O Lord, and have mercy on our president and all in authority throughout the world, commanders-in-chief of armies and navies and airfleets, governors of provinces and cities, and all the Christ-loving navies, armies and police; protect their power with peace, and subdue under their feet every enemy and foe, and speak peace and blessing in their hearts for Thy Holy Church, and for all Thy people, and grant that in their calm we too may lead a quiet and peaceful life in true belief, in all piety and honesty.

Civil gov’t is there only to keep the peace so the Church can do her work: this can be done with the second amendment, or without it, with socialism, capitalism or the odd hybrid we now have. As long as there is civil peace the Church can do her job. Be mindful that this prayer was also prayed for the leaders of the Soviet state…speak peace and blessing in their hearts for Thy Holy Church, and for all Thy people, and grant that in their calm we too may lead a quiet and peaceful life in true belief, in all piety and honesty.

From the state all we want is to be left alone. We need Jesus for Justice: which is an interpersonal quality, not a legal standing. All this world – including our gov’ts, our states, the religion of Scientific Nihilism and the Empirical Bogey – are all trapped in darkness and death. We seek the dawn, Earendel, to show us the way out.

Ye who own the faith of Jesus

JMJ
The Readings for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception:
Ave gratia plena: Dominus tecum.
Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.

Unto whomst (as all the cool kiddies say on Twitter) else has the Lord ever said “Full of Grace”?

Unto which of the Angels or the Prophets, the Patriarchs, the Judges, unto which King or Queen, unto which Priest or Levite, has this ever been said?
Unto which of the women of Jerusalem did Solomon ever say this?
Unto which of the maidens dancing is this said in the Psalms?

No one gets this praise. No one at all, but she who is the Mother of God, conceived this day without sin.

But why? The teaching is that by a singular act of the Divine Mercy, Mary was given this grace before birth: not to know the stain of original sin. The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”. (Catechism, 492.)

And where else do we hear that sort of language? Around baptism! Around our baptism.

What God has promised you and I in our baptism, he gave to Mary by mercy at her conception. What is so horrifying about this: to think that God would honor with all the graces she who was to be the mother of Grace himself? She who was to be the gateway of light would be filled with light for all her life. She who was to be the new Eve would have the grace given to the first Eve before her fall. She who was to be the star of morning before the Dawn of Justice would, in herself, show the reflected light of the advancing sun.

This makes perfect, clear, and charitable sense.

It’s not sensible to deny any of this – although Modernists get away with it by denying original sin outright. This is also not sensible: anyone who has met an Orthodox or Catholic Politician knows original sin is real. If you have the slightest inkling that Jesus is God, what honor would he not bestow on his mother?

But…

The Greek is κεχαριτωμένη kecharitōmenē

This word gets used one other time (in a different form) in the entire New Testament.  It’s in our second reading today, Ephesians 1:6, and it’s not talking about Mary, but about all of us who are Baptised.  And this is why it makes sense to honor Mary today as Full of Grace: the Grace of Baptism bestowed before birth by God’s mercy. It’s scriptural: what God says of us after Baptism, he says of Mary before there ever was a baptism!

In Ephesians, we are celebrated as the ones chosen by God – in the same way as Mary. We are the one made in Christ to be blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. We are given this favor freely: we are made full of grace. To deny this to Mary is to deny this to everyone. (Again the Modernists and Liberals would have no problem with that.)

Today we celebrate in foreshadow what we will hail in reality on Christmas. God become Man to bring Man to God in fullest union. God entering our world to change the very fabric of it to make it a pathway of life instead of death. And even here, at conception, the thing that kills us is destroyed.

This is the glory of the Church: that Mary, our mother, signifies in her soul and body the mystery of our very lives: redeemed, elevated, filled with Grace, and made to birth the Word of God for the joy of all the world. This is the secret doctrine of our faith, that Mary, our mother, knows in her person the fullness of the joy that each of us strives to inculcate by the Spirit. This is the light that burns brightest on our altars: that Mary, our mother in birthing God to the world has become the Tabernacle of life himself. Mary is the Tabernacle, the Temple. Mary replaces all that with her virginal womb.

This day we affirm the highest honor God bestows on all of us by celebrating the most singular person to receive that honor in the most singular way. What we received in Baptism, by the promise, Mary received at conception by Grace. Let us by her prayers become worthy of this gift that we, too, may intercede with her before the Throne of God for those in our lives.

O Virgin – 8th Advent Meditation

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem. Filiae Ierusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? That which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Why marvel ye at me?

Today, in the Byzantine Rite, is the Sunday before the Nativity and the Gospel assigned is that of the Genealogy of Jesus from Matthew.  It’s rough going for the Deacon reading because it’s one hard name after another.  I’m sure it’s equally fun in languages other than English.  In his sermon after, our Archdeacon touched on a lot of points but one struck me as the answer to “Why marvel ye at me?”  From Solomon’s adulterous parentage to slavery in Babylon, from Gentile  blood to Egyptian poverty, the ancestry of  Jesus has something to scandalize nearly every portion of the Roman world, and he was conceived out of wedlock!

Mary, in Orthodoxy, is sinless, but not without scandal. The family tree of Jesus is of royal lineage, but he’s not a direct heir to the throne.  He is of the House of David but only via cadency, He’s less royalty and more like all the folks who can claim Queen Victoria as a member of their family tree.  Mary is indeed a Marvel: fulfilling the prophecy without coming close to fulfilling the expectations. She is – just as her son is – exactly what was promised and not at all what anyone was looking for.

She, devoid of human value and without connections or power – and still the subject of gossip in the Talmud – is exactly perfect as the mother of the God who needs his diapers changed.

Her son will die a state-sponsored death as a condemned revolutionary, betrayed into the hands of a colonial power by his own people.  But that – as with Mary – is God showing us that nothing is out of his hands. The worse things we as humans can do to ourselves or others can, in his hands, become the salvation of the whole world.

Bread containing the dead skin flakes and sweat of you and me – both of us sinners – becomes the flesh of the God who needed his diapers changed by his sinless mother who was a scandal in her town.  God takes what we have.  Our cultural failures, our sins, our loss, our personal fouls and parking tickets, offered to God, become what saves us.

And sinners become divine.

Merry Christmas.

O King – 6th Advent Meditation

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

O King of the gentiles and their desired One, the cornerstone that makes both one: come, and deliver man, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.

It seems there is a silence in Orthodox theology that is not so in the west.  This is not a deficit, this is cultural experience – a difference in things in the west that was, largely, not there in the east. This difference is conversations about democratic government.  For the entirety of the first millennium of the Christian Era, all Christians lived in monarchies.  These would have been “absolute” monarchies to one degree or another, but everyone had a king. Other forms of government evolved in the West towards their modern forms only after the Great Schism. Yet, at the same time, all the Christians of the East – Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, etc – continued to live in Monarchies (Christian or not)  and after that, in autocracies of one form or another, either Muslim or Soviet-style dictatorships, and although a few traditionally Orthodox lands have moved to other forms, no one has, for more than 100 years, lived in what we might call a fully functioning European-style democracy.  It is this lack of experience that has resulted in a large silence on the part of our Bishops, elders and saints to talk about being Christians in democracies.  (This did, finally, begin to change towards the end of the last century.)

We have very little theological base on which to read about Christ as our King: having earthly Kings (who were largely Christian) and not living in democracies we never worried about “Christian Laws”.  When the state became non- or anti-Christian we shouldered on under persecution.  We simply had no power in those cultures to attempt (or effect) change.

In the west this was not so.  But even there the Church was late to the discussion – only about 100 years ahead of the east, in fact.

I’ve been reading up a lot on the Roman Catholic idea of the Social Kingship of Christ. I will try to keep this Advent meditation away from the “I took a class once/I read that book once” level of discourse.  I do not know enough about this doctrine and, of course, being Orthodox, I disagree with any idea that the Roman church is the sine qua non of earthly manifestations of the Kingdom of God.  But that said, I think the idea is one that needs to be studied by the Orthodox.  In the Western Rite we observe the feast of Christ the King, which feast on the last Sunday of October is not of ancient origin, but rather “Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in his 1925 encyclical letter Quas primas, in response to growing nationalism and secularism” (quoth the wiki). The first observance of this festal innovation was on 31 October 1926.  I see not but that 89 years later we are still suffering from growing secularism. Nationalism won the day a while ago: we no longer think of our religion as our primary identity, or even our secondary one.

In many conversations one may encounter a cultural assumption that the laws of a state define what is good and true rather than only what is legal.  Recently I heard voiced a sense of surprise that the Roman and Orthodox Churches would not change their doctrines of marriage based on the decision of the US Supreme Court.  (I’m discussing this regardless of the obvious dismissal of those churches as existing outside the USA.)  The party clearly had no idea that the Church declares what is moral in the law of God and the laws of the state are judged moral or not by that same law. The Church, herself, has no power to change what God says, only to respond to it.  I think this surprise is because of the great silence I mentioned above.  We don’t talk about the laws a lot – or about our Christian duties to legislate for God’s kingdom.

O come, Desire of nations, bind,
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of peace.

When a Roman Catholic politician says she will not have an abortion – because it’s a sin – but she will work to pass laws allowing others to get them, she has violated the teachings of her Church: there are documents, encyclicals, and saints to back that up.  This is not so in Orthodoxy even though our moral teaching is the same: we have no place to point and say, “See, Senator Snowe, you have violated the teachings of your Church by supporting these laws.” Even now reading this some of my readers will say “but we are a democracy” implying thereby that Christians should not even attempt to legislate their morals into the laws of the land.  I, myself, hold a non-Christian gov’t as a nullity, with no say over me beyond keeping the peace between persons – and our gov’t is increasingly poor at that. Yet, is there an obligation to me as a Citizen of the Kingdom of God resident in this nation?

There is a slogan, “No Jesus, No Peace: Know Jesus, Know Peace.” If we are living out the Gospel as our primary function (seek ye first the Kingdom of God) we will become good persons and, being good persons, we can be good residents of the place where we live, good neighbors, good friends and coworkers of those around us.  This is not the same as “nice” and “well respected”.  Nor is it the same as “productive” or “partisan”.  The Kingship of Christ is one of obligation rather than of accommodation: if one lives in the Kingdom of God, one is obligated to transform day-to-day life into that Kingdom.  A friend feeds the poor in his city, despite the fact that it is illegal to do so – as the Rabbis say it was also in ancient Sodom.  That is a moral thing to do and it makes him a good citizen – even as he violates the law.

The Kingship of Christ is a paradox, as we were taught by Jesus: the first are last, the last are first. The meek inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be filled with what they crave.  The rich, however, will be sent empty, away.

America is very rich.
And very empty: spiritually dead and also spiritually corrupting;in this we must agree with those radicals of another religion.
Where is your citizenship.
What is your primary identity?

How do you live the Kingdom present, despite the laws around you?

O Key – 4th Advent Meditation

O 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.
O 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.

Jesus’ Advent is rather both like and unlike Prometheus bringing fire: it’s not enough that he has fire, he has to bring it to all of us. We must become fire.  What, exactly are you imprisoned by? The verse says “darkness and shadow of death”.  Let us set aside “shadow of death” for a moment… but St Paul has some stuff to say about “darkness” in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints: Or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility, which is to no purpose; but rather giving of thanks. For know you this and understand, that no fornicator, or unclean, or covetous person (which is a serving of idols), hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words. For because of these things cometh the anger of God upon the children of unbelief. Be ye not therefore partakers with them. For you were heretofore darkness, but now light in the Lord. Walk then as children of the light. For the fruit of the light is in all goodness, and justice, and truth; Proving what is well pleasing to God: And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For the things that are done by them in secret, it is a shame even to speak of. But all things that are reproved, are made manifest by the light; for all that is made manifest is light.  

Ephesians 5:3-13

Even writing to the saints of God, he admits that “you were heretofore darkness”  something has happened, however, and the Ephesians are “now light in the Lord.”   Nunc autem lux. – You are now light.  In the Sermon on the mount, Jesus says, Vos estis lux mundi. “You are the light of the world.”

We do however, have a painful ministry: the purpose of light is to illuminate the darkness.

Tim Tebow, a professional football player, is getting a lot of press lately: his girlfriend broke up with him because he won’t have sex with her prior to marriage. That’s shining a light on the darkness and it’s bothering people: so they are making fun of him for not committing fornication with Miss Universe.  This is the second girl to dump him for this reason, the last one being a Children’s TV star.

I wish I had learned that lesson in my teens… I might not still be struggling with becoming an adult now. We’re imprisoned in darkness.  The thing about darkness is you can’t see how bad it all is.  When someone comes along and shines a light on it, you’ve got a choice to make: step away or yell at the light-bringer.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Sex, however, is easy to point at and too expected: we’re surrounded by darkness.  Abortion, war, suicide, guns, violence, slow destruction by drugs and alcohol, TV shows and computer games that glorify killing – but even that’s too easy.  Our comedy is dark: making just fun out of our darker evils. Have you ever seen a show called “Absolutely Fabulous”?  It’s anything but.  Reality TV allows us to see everyone’s darker side.  Other TV shows glorify gluttony, greed, anger, and arrogance.  Our politics is filled with the glory of lies and expediency.

The thing is, all this darkness is death.  Humans are not mushrooms and we need light to live.  But we have, as it were, become convinced that we are mushrooms.  We think all of this is normal – healthy. The Evil One makes us hate what is good for us and love what is bad for us. In fact this is such a good trick of his, that he makes us think the bad stuff really is us.  A friend speaking of the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage said she “was given my full humanity…”  I had no idea how to peacefully challenge her on that point.  That’s not your humanity: that’s a lie.  What part of my life in Christ has failed so much that she could her I would agree with her, and what part of my inability to have a peaceful reply allows her to continue in that mistake? We let Jesus deal with that, I think, and her confessor.

But how is your life a light that shines in the darkness?  How is mine so?  St Paul says, “Walk as children of the Light” and Jesus says, “Let your light shine before men”. Paul says that will prove the truth of God, Jesus says “that men may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.”  Paul adds that it will reprove the works of darkness.

Which, of course, means they won’t like us so much any more.

That is the whole point of Christmas becoming a light in a world of darkness and dying for it.