The Face of God

JMJ

FIRST DAY IN CHRISTOLOGY CLASS was hard because too much thinking! Dr Turek teaches in a way that leaves you thinking for hours after it’s all over. I’m still digesting it today, Monday, but it seems less like “thinking too much” and more like we were praying. Contemplata aliis tradere, and all that: You get a blog post even without a paper due.

First walk through the stories about Jesus’ baptism. We started with the usual question, If Jesus was without sin why did he need to be baptized? “Usual question” in the sense that it’s the sort of question that’s so common it gets used as a homiletical device whenever the Baptism of Jesus comes up in the readings. (Note to self: do not do this.) It’s sort of a gotcha. “Well, you say Jesus is God so why dunk him at all?” In the course of our conversations, we unraveled the question slowly. When my friend Marvin made a comment about Jesus being God and the sky was opening up, it hit me like a bowling ball that Jesus is not baptized like us – we are baptized like him. God was dunked into the water so that we could be dunked into the water at all. Jesus had to be baptized as sinless: we’re the odd part, confessing our sins as we go in. The new thing is that our sins get washed away – not that he was sinless to begin with. We’re reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1, and it comes home suddenly (as he teaches) that John’s Baptism was not sacramental: it didn’t forgive or wash away sins. It indicated repentance – a change of heart – but it didn’t confer grace. Jesus changes that.

But that could not be if Jesus was not God.

And it’s Jesus being God that is the point of Christology and of our salvation.

The Prologue in John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) opens with the claim that the Logos of God is with God and also is God. Dr Turek pointed out the “with” there is actually the Greek word πρός pros meaning “to, towards, with”. So when the word is πρός God, that means to God or better “towards God”. The Logos is constantly turned toward God, the Son eternally contemplating the Father. And the Father is continually pouring himself out to the Son. John 5:19 says, “Yes, indeed! I tell you that the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; whatever the Father does, the Son does too.” So what the Father does (self-emptying) the Son does as well, giving himself back to the Father.

The Prologue says it’s this Logos, this Son that has “become flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14) using another Greek word, σκηνόω skénoó, meaning to pitch a tent and echoing how God pitched a tent (the Tabernacle) in the middle of the tribes of Israel. (That’s the header image on this post.) This God now dwells with us however the Prologue and the New Testament take it further. Verse 14 says we beheld the “glory” of the Word “full of grace and truth”. And closes (v. 18) saying “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” That “in the bosom” will be important. Hold on to it.

Later Jesus prays for us all:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who will trust in me because of their word, that they may all be one. Just as you, Father, are united with me and I with you, I pray that they may be united with us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given to me, I have given to them; so that they may be one, just as we are one — I united with them and you with me, so that they may be completely one, and the world thus realize that you sent me, and that you have loved them just as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23 (CJB)

Did you catch all that? It’s a bit dense, but Jesus wants us to be in him in his unity with the Father. As the Son is to the Father, we are to be also. The technical term is filiation or “son making”. We are made sons and daughters of the Father in Christ the Son. We are called to the same relationship, the same glory and the same unity. This is the unity of peace, the unity of love, the unity of humanity in God the Father is the real meaning of salvation. It’s what the Son brings to us. And, the more we are called to give it to others. We hand it on.

The Word, which gives life! He existed from the beginning. We have heard him, we have seen him with our eyes, we have contemplated him, we have touched him with our hands! The life appeared, and we have seen it. We are testifying to it and announcing it to you — eternal life! He was with the Father, and he appeared to us. What we have seen and heard, we are proclaiming to you; so that you too may have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Yeshua the Messiah. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

1 John 1:1-4 (CJB)

What the Apostles touched and Contemplated (that is, Jesus and his teaching) they pass on to us. We touch and contemplate it through them. We pass it on to others. Those others touch and contemplate Jesus through us when we pass him on. We mediate Jesus to them. The face of God, through us, draws people ever closer to an unmediated experience so that they, too, may become mediators of his action in the world.

How? John 13:25 says that, at the Last Supper, St John was “leaning against Yeshua’s chest”. Remember the son “in the bosom of the Father” so, also, we are in the bosom of the Son. Because we are united with Jesus in his contemplation of Abba, God the Father. What we see Abba do we do as well by the grace of our participation in Christ. We experience our salvation not as a moment in the past (Baptism?) but as a process and one that includes not only us but others. As God was in the midst of Israel, but Israel was a light to the Gentiles, so we are to the world. It’s not an added or optional part: it is the thing itself. My evangelism to you is part of your salvation, yes, but it is part of mine as well because it is the ongoing action of Christ on the Cross.

So Christology becomes soteriology: the Son’s relationship to the Father becomes our relationship to the Father. We say “Abba” not like step children, but as sons and daughters of God in Christ who is his only begotten Son. As Mass says, we live “through him, with him, and in him… in the unity of the Holy Spirit” and we offer all glory to God the Father. The Spirit of God, aspirated between the Son and the Father in their Love, is now aspirated between us and the Father as well. And through us further into the world.

St Mary of Egypt

JMJ

THE LIFE OF OUR HOLY MOTHER, Mary of Egypt is not well known in the west although her feast day is the same day on both Eastern and Western calendars. She is commemorated today, 1 April.

Her life is read liturgically in the Byzantine and Orthodox churches at Matins for the Thursday of the 5th week of Lent. In practice, this means Wednesday night of that week. Like many saints so well-loved, she is treated as family and called “Our Mother” and “Holy Mother Mary of Egypt”. Her life was written down by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634–638), from older stories passed down in his monastic community. The original reporter was the monastic elder, Zosimas, who heard the story from the Saint’s own lips.

What follows is not the liturgical text, available online. This is my own retelling. I heard and read this story often in the Orthodox Church, where I also had a chance to venerate a relic of St Mary. It’s ingrained in my heart.

Saint Mary was born sometime in the early to mid 5th century. We know nothing of her family or her background. I imagine that she was poor because of what follows. She is not averse to manual labor nor does she rank as a very high-class courtesan. What she does say is that at the age of 12 she discovered sex. Mary went off to the big city of Alexandria and began to enjoy herself. At this time marriage often took place at the same age, and in those days life expectancy was not then what it is now. Mary is not being a child here. She is a girl in her sexual prime.

Mary was at pains in the story to say she was not a prostitute. She busied herself with spinning flax, with basket weaving, and other manual labor, this suggests that she was poor because she was willing to do this work. She did not want to sell what she enjoyed as she did not think it was fair to be paid for it. She lived this life for 17 years in Alexandria. “This was life to me,” she says. “Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.”

One day Mary saw a group of young men getting ready to get on a boat. In response to her questions about where they were going and why, the men explained that they were going to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which happens every September. Mary asked to go with them not for any pious pursuit and implying it sounded – to her – like a fun idea to be the only woman on a boat filled with young men. On the boat ride and during their time in the city of Jerusalem leading up to the feast day, there was nothing she didn’t do. She says that sometimes she even had sex with the young men when they were not willing to do so.

Then came the feast. With all of her new friends she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem but no matter how many times she tried to get in, she was prevented from entering the church. It was not that the crowds prevented her: she would shove along with everybody else. Yet each time approaching the door she found force holding her back and pushing her off to the side until finally she was alone on the porch of the church, looking at the open door, unable to enter.

Then she turned and saw an icon of Mary the Mother of God. She was not alone and it dawned on her why she could not enter. So she prayed and asked the Blessed Virgin to help her enter the church. If she could but enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross, she prayed, she would make amends and change her life, embarking on the path of repentance for the rest of her days. Then, in her greatest Act of Faith, she turned and walked into the church.

She knelt and kissed the holy wood whereupon hung the price of all of our lives and souls and, most dearly, hers.

Then she left the church. Someone thought she was a beggar and gave her coins, which she used to buy a small amount of food. Then, hearing a voice promise her comfort, she went to the Jordan River and crossed it into the desert, which for the next 17 years became the arena of the Angelic Conquest of her passions.

Mary’s emotions would sometimes stir her; sometimes lust would catch hold of her, sometimes her cravings for food would drive her wild, and sometimes she would find herself singing songs that she used to sing about sex and vulgarity. At these times she would throw herself on the ground and beg for God’s mercy where she would wrestle with the demons that tormented her. There she would beg to be freed from her passion. After her long battle, one day there came from God an inner peace.

She had lived alone for 47 years when she met Fr Zosima, a priest from a monastery on the Jerusalem side of the Jordan River. He was wandering through the Jordan desert on his Lenten fast.

The priest reported that when he begged her to pray for the Church and she hovered above the sandy floor of the wasteland while praying. She was illiterate and had never been taught scripture yet she could quote it fluently. From her inner sight, she knew Fr Zosima’s name and that he was a priest. After 17 years she had won her struggle, and then for 30 more years, receiving so much grace from God that she lived partly in this world as the Angels do in the next.

She asked the priest to meet her after Easter with the Holy Eucharist. As he came to her from his monastery, he saw her walk on the water, crossing the Jordan to receive the Eucharist from him and then walk back across the water.

A year later, when he went to find her, he found her body lying on the sand. Unable to dig into the hard ground to bury her, he prayed. A lion came and helped him dig.

The Golden Legend is a collection of the Lives of the Saints, compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, a Dominican priest from Genoa. In it are hundreds of stories collected from around the Church. The entry on St Mary the Egyptian closes with these words:

And Zosimus returned to his abbey and recounted to his brethren the conversation of this holy woman Mary. And Zosimus lived an hundred years in holy life, and gave laud to God of all his gifts, and his goodness that he receiveth sinners to mercy, which with good heart turn to him, and promiseth to them the joy of heaven.

Then let us pray to this holy Mary the Egyptian that we may be here so penitent that we may come thither.

Every year during Orthodox Lent, when the Life of St Mary of Egypt would be read in liturgy, I saw in her so much of my own journey: the discovery of sex, the enjoyment of sex, and the life of someone devoted to finding “every kind of abuse of nature”. This was life to me. Her story told me there was hope for a way out, there was not only the chance of change but also the grace-filled reality of it.

In the Byzantine rite, this Vita is read liturgically during the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete at Matins on the Thursday before the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s a long text. Reading the Canon and this vita together makes this one of the longest services of the Byzantine Liturgical Year. (Only the Paschal vigil service with 15 readings and a Divine Liturgy of St Basil is longer.)

The last time I was appointed to read a portion of the Vita, written by St Sophronius, I was unable to finish when, reading this paragraph, I was overcome:

Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’ I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once. How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls.

My friend, Fr A, had to step in and finish reading for me while I went to the corner and mourned my sins. Look, it’s a long text. I’m not going to torture you with it. But I suggest you read The life of our holy mother, Mary of Egypt nonetheless. Bookmark it. It might take a while. Prayerfully move through it. You may find some portion of your journey there. Or you may not. I don’t care what orientation you feel you have, or what your life looks like even now. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle of her story and crave, deeply, to also find yourself in the end of her story, reach out. Let’s see what we can do to help each other.

Pray for me at least.

Cancel Welcome

JMJ

IT WAS SUCH A FEELING of power! Standing on the 38 Geary bus one night reading Vespers, a woman in front of me got up and moved over to a different part of the bus. She began to point and speak. I know very little Russian but the thing she was pointing at (and the distress she was feeling) was caused by my blue shirt, blue pants, yellow shoes, and yellow tie. I had worn these on purpose, standing in solidarity with Ukraine and I was stressing out the Russian ladies on the bus. Such a feeling of power! Also stupid.

We’ve been having a round of cancel culture from both the left and the right. The issue is around Ukraine and Russia. Which side are you on? Did you know there were neo-Nazis supporting this side or that side? Did you know this side was supporting Israel or not? Did you know that side was killing children? Etc. If you’re not 100% on the right side, watch out.

Which side would Jesus be on? Well, that gets worse: because there are Christians on both sides pulling their weight and there are Christians around the world lining up to side with Paul and Apollos, or Patriarch Kirill and Archbishop Shevchuk in this case. So, which side would Jesus be on? We all know, don’t we? He would be on your side, right?

This problem has haunted me for most of my Christian life. It’s easy to see who the sinners are and they clearly are not being Christians when they sin. But what would Jesus do, actually?

הָאִישׁ הַלָּזֶה פְּנֵי חַטָּאִים הוּא נֹשֵׂא וְאֹכֵל עִמָּהֶם

Οὗτος ἁμαρτωλοὺς προσδέχεται καὶ συνεσθίει αὐτοῖς.

Quia hic peccatores recipit, et manducat cum illis.

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Luke 15:2

The Pharisees in this text are talking about tax collectors and harlots: that is moral and political sinners, violators of the moral code as well as the purity code. Jesus welcomes them both. Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal son here. All they need to do is show up to be welcomed in. They will change later…

I don’t want to confuse this issue with communion: Jesus only let certain folks into the Last Supper. Admittance to communion is a juridical issue (after one is a Christian) and that’s another issue entirely.

Let’s imagine your least favorite politician or celebrity showed up at a Bible Study you were leading. What would happen? Regardless of why you might disagree with said person or how you imagine I might agree (or disagree) with you on whatever issue it is, how would you treat them? Tonight’s Bible Study is on the Discourse in John Chapter 3. What would you do?

God’s Holy Spirit works through us to evangelize. How we treat Harlots and Tax Collectors is exactly how people will see Christians acting in the world. Do we get judgey or lovey? What about the politics of it though? How is God working through our hearts at the moment of encounter?

Increasingly, all we can say about the world is that it’s filled with sin. Followers of the Messiah of Israel need to work all sides of every divide to bring them to Christ. There is no moral side in this world that we can stick with 100% and, even when it seems that way, we risk losing souls if we become partisans.

I’ve been watching a new generation of Jesus followers on YouTube: Hebrew speaking Jews and Arabs, and Arab speaking Israelis and Palestinians (and all of them speak some English as well) all worshipping Jesus together. I have no idea what their politics are I’ve looked: I can find none on their websites or social mediae. That seems to be on purpose. They want to praise Jesus. That’s all that matters.

Too many times we, especially in America, but not only so, want to see the world in black and white. We want to assume that Jesus would see the world the same way we do. He was not afraid of Romans or Gentiles or Jews of any political stripe: he accepted all comers, even the ones who would betray him. That is, all of them except John. He even gave them communion at the Last Supper. He didn’t see it as black and white. He saw it as love – even when people were doing the wrong things.

When I look at the places where Jesus’ name has been most blasphemed it’s most often in wars between Christians. Those wars are most often they are between specific groups of Christians: Protestants and Catholics, Russian Orthodox vers Greek Catholics, Anglicans vrs Dutch Reformed. But they are not theological wars: they are Proxy Wars for political power. We get sucked into the ideas of this or that leader, this or that offer of protection, this or that secular idea of “justice” or “prosperity”, or sometimes simple power and land. We sell out our Christian ideals of martyrdom for the truth, of love, of peace, of welcoming sinners in exchange for the most recent golden calf.

I know that some recent actions on the part of some Christians might be seen to violate this or that teaching of the faith. However, my own sins are not that important: don’t judge me! I’m free to judge you, however. Please don’t cut me out of the Church, but let me do so to you.

Not that I was getting ready to evangelize that night on the bus – and the Russian women probably have seen me as a Papist schismatic – but why did I get such a rush over being right when, in fact, I was just falling into the ways of the world?

Welcome sinners and eat with them.

That’s how Jesus converted people. Eat with them. Love them into seeing their missteps. Forgive them even before they ask, and keep on living the Gospel. Jesus is Lord and he conquers any human divisions we have not by picking one side or the other, but by loving both and all. We have no better program or pattern. It got Jesus crucified. We should have the blessing of the same experience. It will mean we’re doing something right.

7LW: Messy

JMJ

Behold Your Mother.

BY WAY OF disclaimer, this admission: Pope Francis has stepped out to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and this seems to me a good thing. As the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, the whole world is his See, and he can make Eucharist with all that is his – as each servant of Christ is called to do. By that confession or what follows I hope that my opinion of the sitting Patriarch of Moscow would become clear as well.

Some think that the consecration will result in some sort of “automagical” end to the war or maybe some other apocalyptic event. But I think not. This event reads as the Pope asserting pastoral authority over a people seemingly abandoned by their own Pontiff, who, by throwing himself into the vanguard of someone we think of as a political bad actor, seems to have offered not only a pinch of incense to Caesar but also turned traitor against his own brethren in the name of that same Caesar. The sitting Patriarch of Moscow deserves to be removed from office if you ask me. The Holy Father is doing what he can, short of declaring the See of Moscow to be vacant – an act which neither side of the Great Schism has ever done. If you’ve never noticed: neither Rome nor Constantinople has ever tried to elect a successor to the See of the Opposition. There’s no Catholic Ecumenical Patriarch and no Orthodox Bishop of Rome. (This tacit agreement to let each other run their own show is a huge sign of hope to me!)

Orthodox Bishops around the world have made it clear that they reject the Patriarch’s actions. But, in doing so, they reveal to the west how messy Orthodox Ecclesiology can be. Yet – the rule of glass houses applies here – what makes this action any different from how certain bishops and priests reject our Holy Father as either too liberal, too conservative, or too vague? Rejoicing because secular politics is ripping up the Church is not a good look for us. Taking sides in a dispute internal to the Orthodox Church seems tone-deaf on our part, or else imperialistic: do we want them to fall apart?

The Pope is giving Russia and Ukraine – and by proxy all of us – a call to behold your Mother. Jesus says, “Behold your mother.” Yet the Pope is also unveiling (the real meaning of apocalypse) exactly how messy the Church is. As Mary is our Mother, so also is the Church. If the Pope is calling us to see one, we must see the other as well. Spiritually the Church is a spotless bride adorned as for her wedding. But. Look. Let’s be honest: to human eyes, the Church can be more like Stella Dallas than Stella Maris.

When I left the Episcopal Church, I looked briefly at the Catholic Church but thought I saw many of the same problems I was fleeing in ECUSA: sexual issues, feminism, bad theology, wonky liturgy. The Orthodox Church seemed a safe haven. I needed to be there for 3 years or so before I saw my mistake. After 10 years there the Apocalypse had shown sexual abuse, issues around the understanding of sex and the two human genders, wonky theology and ecclesiology, and even a form of the Liturgy Wars. Hearing of the sexual antics of monastics in a monastery I had – pardon me – idolized even before I became Orthodox was the last straw in a lot of ways. As news of the sex scandal breaks (over and over, it seems) and as political infighting becomes the main soundtrack, maybe casting it all aside seems like a good idea. But that would be to betray our divinely appointed mother.

This post is not about the scandal that may thus arise any more than it’s about Putin’s ecclesial shenanigans. It’s about our mother, the Church.

And she’s a bit messy. You may even say tawdry. She’s filled up with mere human beings who are all sinners. Left to our own devices she’s bound to end up with a torn dress, with bruised muscles, with a black eye now and then.

But she’s trying very hard to get sainthood out of us anyway.

The consecration of Russia and Ukraine – and all of mankind – to the Heart of the Immaculate Virgin is a reminder that while we have a mother here on Earth we have a pure mother in Heaven as well. One who prays for us, one who sits at the side of her son offering intercession for us along with all the saints; and through her Son to the Father. The Church Militant is both an expression of her intercession as well as a foretaste of what Mary is. Only by God’s grace can we move there, only by God’s grace can she – the Church – move there. The process of ecclesial reform is first and foremost the process of making each of us holy. We cannot fix the Church – she fixes us – and when we are healed so will she be. We are the Church. Those public sins we did not commit damaged souls as surely as the private ones we did.

Behold your mother: she’s a bit of a mess but she has one thing to do. She’s going to get you holy and, by a grace-filled sort of transubstantiation, when you are holy she will be too.

7LW: Fire and Water

JMJ

Today you will be with me in Paradise.

TODAY.How hard it is to imagine this. Today in paradise. Sometime in the distant future or, perhaps, sometime in the distant past, certainly. But today? Hardly. Of course, the Wise Thief is about to die, so that makes sense, right? Your going to die and you’ll be with me in paradise after you die. And the Greek does say that after a fashion. But what it really says is, “Today with me you will be in paradise.” It’s a subtle change, but it’s important. Not, “today you and I will be in paradise together” but rather “today, by means of me, you will be in paradise.” That’s an important change for two reasons:

First, I think we usually imagine this as being a change in “spiritual location” for both Jesus and the thief. Jesus is not saying we’ll be here (on earth) for a little while and then “we’ll go to heaven by and by when we die”. In fact, the Creed says Jesus descended from the cross into Hell. This is where the harrowing of hell takes place – from Friday at Sunset and through the course of the Holy Shabbat. Jesus is making a different promise to the thief here. The second reason this is important is related to modern soteriology: the Wise Thief is the only person promised anything like “paradise” after death. Look through the New Testament. Although there are lots of conversations about salvation, none of them talk about “going to heaven after you die”. None of the evangelists promise “life after death” as a way to get converts.

My final presentation in New Testament class was research on the Lake of Fire in St John’s Apocalypse. If it had been longer (my presentation timed at just under five minutes) it would have been called a “deep dive” but that pun would not have worked too well. How is the Lake of Fire linked with Jesus’ promise to be with him in Paradise?

The Lake of Fire is only mentioned four times in the Apocalypse:

  1. Revelation 19:20: The beast and the False Prophet are thrown in. No previous discussion or description happened.
  2. Revelation 20:10 The devil is cast in.
  3. Revelation 20:14–15 Then Death and Hades go in. Wait, hell goes into hell? Then “anyone not found written in the Book of Life.”
  4. Revelation 21:8 A list of sorts of people get tossed in as well. There are three classes of Christians and four classes of nonbelievers:
    – cowardly. Are these people who walked away when persecution arose?
    – faithless. People who walked away just because?
    – detestable. Unclear – perhaps heretics?
    – murderers
    – sexually immoral
    – sorcerers
    – idolaters
    – liars

The lake is described as burning with fire and brimstone or sulfur. I think that detail is important, but we’ll get back to that.

The first appearance of fire in the Apocalypse is as something flashing from Jesus’ eyes in 1:14: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.” This description is repeated in 19:12 (His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns). Fire is, somehow (in some way) tried to Jesus here. But that link between God and fire is throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There are two words, a Hebrew one for most of the Old Testament and an Aramaic one for Daniel:

esh: a fire (Strong’s #784)
Original Word: אֵשׂ (Hebrew)
Part of Speech: Noun Feminine
Transliteration: esh
Phonetic Spelling: (aysh)
Definition: a fire

nur: a fire (Strong’s #5135)
Original Word: נוּר (Aramaic)
Part of Speech: Noun
Transliteration: nur
Phonetic Spelling: (noor)
Definition: a fire

Daniel uses his word 17 times. Most are talking about the “Firery Furnace” into which people have been tossed. The Hebrew word gets used 377 times. It’s a normal “fire” in Genesis 22:6, but of the first 17 times it’s used in Genesis and Exodus, 11 times it is the fire of God. 19 times in Deuteronomy it is the fire of God. This goes on! 2 Samuel 22:9, 2 Kings 2:11, 1 Chronicles 21:26, 2 Chronicles 7:1, Nehemiah 9:12… gracious. It’s constantly on fire here. There is a flaming torch (God) there is a flaming bush (God), there is a pillar of fire (God), a river of fire, a throne of fire, and wheels of fire. God shows up as fire. Flashes fire from the sky in Sodom, Egypt, and on the prophets of Baal. God has a fire that goes before him consuming foes (Psalms 97:3), and God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). This last we hear repeated in Hebrews 12:29, which we might see as a bridge between the fires of the first testament and those of the second one.

Isaiah reports (33:14) The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? Indeed it is terrifying. Who of us can live in the consuming fire? Wait, why do we have to? Don’t we get a pass because of our baptism? Well, no. For the ones who dwell with “everlasting burnings” are exactly, “He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil” but suddenly the image changes and “they are the ones who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. Their bread will be supplied, and water will not fail them.”

Water? Food? Were we not discussing fire?

Time for another set of images.

Also in Heaven, there is a glassy sea. That may mean the sea is made of glass, but I’m going with “placid sea” because in other places in the Apocalypse there is an Ocean as well. There is a river of the water of life, there is the living water rising from within Jesus – and from within the believer. God is not only a pillar of fire, but also a pillar of cloud. There is the crucial clue, pardon the pun. It’s something to do with God being fire and water, qith God being either fire or water (bother, actually). Who can live in the consuming flames? Those who are just – who have been washed in the living waters.

There is a way where the presence of God is as refreshing as living water for some and as deadly as a fiery furnace for others. Better, using the images from Daniel: the fires of the divine furnace are somehow bedewed by the presence of one like the Son of Man walking with us.

I mentioned this story in an earlier post on Hebrews (where God is a consuming fire): Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, insofar as I can, I say my prayers, I keep my little fast, and I pray and meditate… Now what more shall I do?” The elder stood up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame, and he said to him, “If you wish, become all fire.” Here, the fire is within us, God’s fire becomes us.

And that’s what it means to be in Paradise: to be in the presence of God and to not be destroyed by the fires.

Unfortunately, for all most all Americans, Christian or not, to be saved means “going to heaven.” There is no scriptural reason to hold that meaning. None. At all. Period. Nothing in the Bible makes any sense if that’s all that “paradise” means. Where is paradise? Where is hell? Is there anywhere an omnipresent God is not?

There is only one eternity – equally true for me, for you, for Ivan the Terrible, for Adolf Hitler, for Mother Theresa, and for your great-grandma Mae. The answer is totally the same for everyone:

With God.

We will all spend Eternity with God. Eternity is that omega point where our human, fear-based self-shielding mechanisms of time, space, sin, self-interest, ignorance, and doubt all collapse into the event horizon of God’s very beingness, from whom nothing can escape, by whom all things are known, and in whom all things live and move and have their fullest being. We discover that the very fire in our being that animates us is our participation in God – as it is for the demons. They know this already and it burns them even as they live. We will see it fully then… will it burn? Or will we burn alive?

There is no place else to go, nowhere to run in eternity where God is not. There is no place to run here in Space-Time, either, if you really want to know. It is our delusions that allow us to think that we’re safe from him. We can ignore him for a few minutes, hiding behind fig leaves, as he walks in the evening crying out, “Earthling, where are you?”

Eternity with God is not “salvation” though, except in the abstract: certainly Jesus didn’t send Bartimaeus there when he said “you’ve been σῴζωed – sozoed.” Nor did he send anyone else to “the Gold Streets of Glory, halleluia!” when he said to the woman at his feet, the lepers, the bleeding woman, the Syrophoenician woman, the Centurion, “Your faith has sozoed you.” Neither is it what St Paul and the other Apostles mean when they say, preaching, “You and your whole household can be sozoed this night…”

In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, σῴζω – sozo is used for the word הושִׁיעַ, hoshia. Both mean “to save”. And the Hebrew is related to Jesus’ own name, Yeshua. There is our clue, really: think of it that way for just a moment and it will make sense:

Being “saved” means being “made more like Jesus”.

No one will be excluded from God’s presence – but to see God is to be plunged into what? “Our God is a Consuming Fire.” The only Human who can be there is Jesus, who is God, himself. To be saved… to be brought into communion-via-likeness with Jesus… is to stand alive in the Fountain of Life itself, to be made like the Burning Bush: raised to a fullness of Beauty unimagined, burning and yet not consumed.

Dante takes us so close to heaven:

This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains. 

As in a circle, light and love enclose it,
as it surrounds the rest and that enclosing,
only He who encloses understands.

Like sudden lightning scattering the spirits
of sight so that the eye is then too weak
to act on other things it would perceive, 

such was the living light encircling me,
leaving me so enveloped by its veil
of radiance that I could see no thing.

As he is ending his glorious quest Dante links heaven with us here, on earth: we are being made ready, turned…

The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes
into Itself with such a salutation,
to make the candle ready for its flame

But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

We want seriously to think that “I’ve found the only way into heaven”. We want to think “We can keep out the wrong sort of people.” I know one pastor who keeps a gun in his pulpit because he thinks the wrong sort of people will try to stop him from getting into heaven. Even Dante put the wrong sort of people in other places. But that was humorous and educational. We need to stop imagining heaven like an old Simpsons Episode:

Oh, my friends, I have no doubt that God will call all men to himself – he is doing so now. Not everyone will want to be there. We have to be saved – to be made as much like Jesus as possible. We are working out our salvation here, now – working out our transformation into Jesus. When the opening of our presence to God’s Being is at the fullest, some of us will have been prepared and some will fight it off. In that Divine Light our only defence will be to self-destruct as we burn. Or we can live there forever – only if we, even now, are being turned like a wheel, being brought up to speed, by the Love which moved the Sun and other stars.

(Part was cribbed from a post from back in 2016.)

Holy, Mighty!

From St Patrick Lighting the Fire at Slane.

JMJ

ST PATRICK Is the copatron of our Archdiocese and so today’s Lenten commemoration is observed as a Solemnity here in San Francisco (as in NYC). We usually hear of driving the snakes out of Ireland (there’s never been any snakes there…) but while miracles are cool, the proof of anyone’s sanctity is the life of the Spirit within them. We are fascinated by miracles: one might say distracted. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are boring. So we think about Patrick driving out the snakes. Sure, courage, peace, and wisdom, right… but snakes, bro! He also raised 33 people from the dead!

It’s the Spirit that makes this possible. The Catechism at ¶1831 says “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are (1)wisdom, (2)understanding, (3)counsel, (4)fortitude, (5)knowledge, (6)piety, and (7)fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them.” The gifts of the Spirit come from the listing in Isaiah 11:1-2. The Latin text calls Number 4, fortitudo or fortitude and is sometimes rendered in listings as “courage”. Courage is usually acting in the face of fear. St Hilary of Poitiers says, “Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or are made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encountering a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.” (This is quoted from the Office of Readings for Thursday in the Second Week of Lent.) This makes no sense though for Patrick: what had he to be afraid of?

The Greek in the Septuagint doesn’t go there – to courage and fear. The Greek word for courage is τολμάω toma-o, meaning “to have courage, to be bold”. That’s not the word that gets used for fortitude though. The word that gets used is ἰσχύος iskhuos, a form of ἰσχύς iskhus. It means mighty or powerful. It is actually one of the titles of God in a prayer called the Trisagon, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” In the trinitarian reading of that prayer the second phrase is a Title of God the Son: “Holy Mighty”. So we’re not asking for “courage” so much as power or, better yet, “mightiness”.

What is that?

The Hebrew word in Isaiah 11:1 is גְּבוּרָה gevurah. It’s the same word used in the ending to the Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew. “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” All through the Old Testament gevurah is rendered as might, power, or strength. Even force. Not courage. God has a mighty hand and mighty acts. The sun has might. Might point in mentioning all this is that the gift of the spirit is not the idea of courage and no-fear. It’s mightiness, power. Even valor. (Remember: there’s another word for courage.)

The story is told of St Patrick kindling the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. The King had forbidden all fires to be light on the Spring Equinox until he lit his own on the hill of Tara. Patrick went ahead with his own fire – you know the blessing of the New Fire in the Easter Vigil! A druid remarked that if Patrick’s fire was not extinguished it would burn forever.

There are a couple of things wrong with the story, first off: the ancient Celts didn’t celebrate the equinoxes. In fact, very few cultures did: there were other days easier to note. That aside, the Easter Fire would not have been lit on the night before the Equinox (it would not have been Easter at that point). Easter is the First Sunday after the first full moon after the Equinox. The earliest possible date for Easter is 22 March. That’s the only date the Paschal and Equinox fires could have been on the same night. The only date in that time that Easter fell on 22 March was in 482 AD. That’s 20 years after Patrick died. (Sometimes the story mentions fires of Beltain or Bealtain, but that’s on 1 May – not at all around the date of Easter.)

SO… pagan festival fires aside what probably happened was the King forbade Patrick from celebrating Easter in public at all.

He lit the fire anyway (began the Vigil Mass, that is).

If Patrick was fearful (I doubt it) then it was a courageous act, but with or without fear the point is: it was mighty. It was powerful. It was a mighty act of power to light the Paschal Fires.

Christians are called to these acts of power, to these acts of might.

Mindful again that this word, might, is a title of God and a gift of the Holy Spirit, an actual definition of “might” here is not important. What constitutes a mighty act is not something that required God. It’s not a miracle, or something mytical or magical.

A Mighty Act is participating in what God is doing here and now. It’s meditating God’s presence in the present as a witness (martyr) to the salvation of those around you.

You are the body of Christ where you are, present and active. If you move under the direction of the Holy Spirit, in dialogue with God and those around you, your actions are mighty, filled with the Power of God.

Patrick’s action was mighty, was powerful, was filled with evangelistic zeal for the Irish Peoples, exactly because he was mediating the action of God in place in that time. Kindling the Fire was a hieratic action, being God in that place just as Moses was to Pharaoh, so Patrick was to Laoghaire (Leery). So you can be to those around you in the gift of Power. Your powerful actions can mediate God’s presence – which is love – to those around you, can draw others into God’s actions of salvation in their lives.

Be like Patrick and, robed in the Power of the Holy Spirit, light the first fires to draw others to God.

7LW: Forgive

JMJ

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

FORGIVENESS is a full-circle claim. We know this from “forgive us as we forgive others.” Certainly, we wrestle with that. It is hard. Resentments, parents, bullies in school, coworkers, backstabbing, etc. How we navigate forgiveness is an ongoing process of grace: Christianity is only always about relationships and forgiveness is the healing of relationships with others and with God. We bring those relationships into Love. We can only love God by his grace and we can only love others when he helps. Further, we can only love others as we love ourselves. And so that means, somewhere deep inside, we must also forgive ourselves.

Sin is an autoimmune issue, we all have it, and we will all die from it: but it will manifest in each of us with unique symptoms. Confession is a healing thing – getting all our sins out in the open, all of our brokenness. God gives us forgiveness and absolution. We can live in that grace and begin our healing process – healing from the universal sickness that is sin, as well as from the particular manifestations of that sickness in our individual lives. Those symptoms may always form identical patterns leading to death, but they are always unique to the person.

The odd reality is that the symptoms of our shared autoimmune disease are literally what God uses to draw us to him. In fact, God uses everything to draw us to him. Let me rephrase. It’s not odd. It’s God. Grace is what God uses to draw us via our shared autoimmune disease to himself.

Forgiveness – of ourselves – is the healing process that lets us see that God was not using some of our past: God was using all of our past. We need to admit first that it was a sinful past, yes. Then we need to let baptismal grace wash over our eyes as we look to see clearly that even when we thought we were running away, God was drawing us to him. Even when we screamed and kicked, God held on.

Seeing God’s process of socializing us, if you will, into the kingdom of heaven, we can begin to see that we were – by his grace – cooperating with him. Yes, we need to repent and confess those sins. But we also need to realize that no one loves evil because it’s evil. We were loving too much the wrong things – but we were loving. God used the love we understood to draw us to the love we needed, the love we craved, to the Love that is God. And so, while none of it was (or even, yet, is) perfect we can forgive ourselves because God has done so.

I would not be me but for where I’ve been.

No understanding of where I’ve been can exclude sin. It was not enough: not good enough, not the highest love, not the purest way to walk. It was not the walk of Christ. But it was the walk of a Christian. God was drawing me to himself.

We are tempted to draw a picture of a Christian’s life as if there are two parts: one before conversion and one after. However, the bread of the Eucharist still has gluten, calories, starch, nutritional value, color, taste both before and after consecration. Only now it is God. All the things that go into a Christian’s life are still there only now God. And since God is beyond time in some grace-filled way a Christian’s life is suddenly all God.

So forgiveness. Forgive us as we forgive. Let us forgive others as we forgive ourselves.

You didn’t know God. You walked contrary to him. You do not do so any longer and – somehow – that contrary walk was what brought you to him.

So forgive yourself.

Thank God.

Make the bread of your past life.

Into the Eucharist you offer.

It is broken.

But in Yeshua

It is whole.

Colossians

JMJ

THE ASSIGNMENT was to read a selected book of the New Testament (in my case, The Epistle to the Colossians) and answer selected questions. A five-page paper was assigned as well as a 10-12 mins presentation.

What Problem is Being Addressed?

This depends on who is writing and when. Is this letter written by Paul (mid-50s to early-60s), by a disciple of Paul but in Paul’s name (50s – 70s), or is it “in a Pauline style” but much later (-90s?)? If it is by Paul or a disciple the issue could well be the same. If it is from a later date the content and reasons are different. Please note that sources are listed at the end of the paper.

Those who say the letter is pseudonymous point out that there are multiple terms used in this letter not used in other letters. Additionally, it does not fit into the accepted chronology of Paul’s writing: “This means Paul would have written Colossians sometime before his Letter to the Romans, creating the difficulty that Romans often betrays less development than Colossians with regard to some key concepts such as “body of Christ,” the relation of baptism to resurrection, and emphasis on Christ’s future coming.” If this text is from a later period then all of what follows is to be seen as didactic (here are some rules to follow) rather than pastoral (there are some problems so let’s talk). The author is creating a “Pauline slapdown” for their community rather than helping any local Christians deal with issues. Thus the argument seems to be, “Paul already had to deal with stuff like this 20 years ago and he did this… so y’all fall in line.” The unknown author seems to be making claims in support of some specific parties in a local church over other parties. (All the preceding is summarized from Havener.) Our class text indicates that the author wants to “… respond to the challenge presented by ‘the philosophy’ (2:8), and… to provide some support for Epaphras (1:7)…” 

Considered as actually from St Paul, though, this letter is very interesting! It is traditionally paired with Philemon. The text does respond to some cultural challenges and a good bit of encouragement for a congregation of new Christians.  The text is also part of a one-two punch delivered to Philemon and addresses issues on interpersonal relationships in the new community.

Assuming the text to be what it claims to be, the issue is one of how to live as Christians in the culture. Kreeft and our textbook both think that the issue is some sort of Jewish legalism and proto-Gnosticism. Other scholars suggest that there is more a sort of two-way pressure: from the Pagan side there was Epicurean philosophy as well as the normal Roman Paganism (worship of the Roman gods). From the Jewish side, there is legalism – a pressure to follow the full scope of Jewish religious laws. 

I find these two sides pushing images makes more sense to me than thinking most (all?) of the pushback was from the Jewish community: certainly as Catholics that we are challenged both by the culture of the secular world (our local Paganism) as well as by other religions. We are also challenged by the legalism within our own tradition. More on that in a few moments though! 

Main Message

God is in control; that is to say, “Christ is in Control.” The opening passages of this letter (Colossians 1:12-20) are a hymn from the early Church. We also sing this at Vespers on Wednesdays. Christ is described in a great number of titles, each listing Christ as the top of some theological category. All of the sources refer to this hymn as describing the Cosmic Christ. 

This Cosmic Christ is presented as a counter to “philosophy” as well as to local paganism, on the one hand, and, on the other, as in opposition to adherence to the law itself. It is our being (through baptism) in Christ that means we are no longer subject to the Jewish law or the superstitions of the Pagan world. We no longer need to dig into mysterious/occult ways, since Christ is the culmination of all mysteries.

Theological Insights

1) The Cosmic Christ

The hymn in 1:15-20 gives a number of titles and descriptions to Christ that are very much beyond the “carpenter’s son of Nazareth”:

He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers- all things were created through him and for him. Before anything was created, he existed, and he holds all things in unity. (etc)

“The hymn… makes clear that Christ is the ruler of the cosmos;… [and]has a very high view of the divinity of Christ, but it is a step in the development of doctrine, not its completion…” (Smiles)

2) In Christ (ἐν Χριστῷ) 

The expressions “in Christ” and the variations “in him/ whom” and “in the Lord” appear extensively in Paul’s writings, some two hundred times… In Colossians, in Christ (and the variations) occurs nineteen times. …Paul used (in all of his writings – DHR) fourteen compound words beginning with sun, the preposition translated “with.” Three of them are found in Colossians, co-­buried (2:12), co-raised (2:12; 3:1), and co­-quickened (2:13). (Martin)

One could be tempted to read “in Christ” as a mere psychological or spiritual “identification” with Christ, but the Catholic understanding of “in Christ” implies the doctrine of theosis or divinization and it means that the believer participates in Christ fully by Grace. There is a mystical way in which the believer is being Christ or mediating Christ in the present situation. 

¶1691 “Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.”

¶1692 The Symbol of the faith confesses the greatness of God’s gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become “children of God,” “partakers of the divine nature.” Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section III “Life in Christ”

Kreeft points out that the main argument is “(1) Christ is divine. (2) And you are in Christ. (3) Therefore, ‘if then you have been raised with Christ… set your minds on the things that are above not on the things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (3:1-3).” Paul spends most of chapters 2 and 3 walking the reader through the implications.

3) Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers

Jesus is cited as head over all things, therefore we do not need to submit ourselves to any spiritual “others” such as angels, elemental powers, etc. Is Paul addressing worship of local deities or some proto-Gnosticism? Most of the sources think there’s something like Gnosticism going on here. Paul uses the term “Philosophy” (love of wisdom) in 2:8. Greco-Roman paganism had “taboo” days where certain things could not be done. Many superstitions command “do not touch” and “do not eat” so the contents in the Epistle do not need to refer to Judaism alone. What, exactly,  is Paul referring to? At this great remove, we might be unable to know for certain, but there are many examples today of people who make Christ one of a “pantheon” in their spiritual-but-not-religious way.  Paul is saying that’s not following Jesus who is higher than all other beings. This is the prime insight, really, of the entire letter. In Christ is our Hope, and our action, our life, our one true religion.

4) Relationships in the Home in theory and practice.

Jesus’ primacy is not only a theological or spiritual claim: we must act as if it’s really real. Paul points out that the Cosmic Christ has implications in the home noting that contrary to the abusive family structures common in the Roman world, the Lordship of Christ requires our families to change. The Bible Project makes it clear that the way a Roman Pater Familias ran his home was nothing like a Christian Father exercising his headship in Christ.  What Paul describes would not be very recognizable to the “secular” Roman world.

Then Paul gives an example in the relationship between Philemon and his slave Onesimus. Paul does not demand the political overthrow of a system, but the change he makes in the relationship between a Roman Master and a Roman Slave will, eventually, change even our country. But we know the laws are only part of the work: it is still hearts that must be changed. 

5) Comments on Legalism

Legalism (which will not save us) is part superstition and part politics. The legalism mentioned in the Epistles is usually referring to circumcision, dietary laws, and the sabbath, but as I noted Roman Paganism has such rules as well. Today we practice a sort of reverse legalism rather than evangelism. Paul wants us to change hearts and relationships, to win souls for Christ. He doesn’t give us new rules for the household, he shows us how love plays out. Paul wants the Colossians and – especially? – Philemon to do the hard work of changing hearts – their own hearts and others. Following rules does not save us. 

How often in our modern world do we try to change laws to make people comply with Christian morality rather than doing the hard work of changing hearts?


Further Notes (for speaking)

Paul is writing a letter of encouragement. He has been visited in prison by his friend Epaphras – who founded this community – and he has sent a letter to them by the hands of Tychicus and Onesimus. Now, Onesimus is the slave of one Philemon, a member of the Colossian community. Paul is also sending a personal letter to Philemon to ask for some special favors.

The church in Colossae may meet in Philemon’s house.

The Colossians are facing cultural pressure to conform from two different directions: the Pagans in Colossae as well as from the Jewish Community. Are these Jewish Christians or Jewish Jews? Well, at a certain point in time there was no division here. If this letter is written by Paul in the middle of the 1st Century the Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah are worshipping in the Synagogue along with the Jews who do not believe. The practice seems to have been for Jews to meet on Friday night and Saturday for Sabbath and then, after the Havdala service, marking the end of Sabbath, Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah gathered with Gentiles for the Eucharistic supper. (Keonig)

I would like to suggest that Jews outside the community may have wondered at Jews eating with Pagans. We can imagine the conversation being something like this:

Why do you eat with them late Saturdays?
Um…
Are they righteous Gentiles?
Oh yes!
Oh, then they should come to synagogue, at least. They can sit in the back. You know they should keep Kosher, though…
Hey, you know… brothers… if you tried to blend in more, it would be easier for all of us. Just pretend you’re Jews…

Additionally, Paul was addressing a Church arising in a pagan culture and needed to move Christians from their own cultural assumptions towards a more Christ-centered life. Paul believes that, in baptism and through the Holy Spirit, the Christians are endowed with the grace to make this change in their lives.

There are mystery religions as well as normal Roman paganism (worship of Jupiter/Zeus, etc). In this world, they would imagine Jesus to be just another deity. One Anglican scholar has noted that while there were miracle-working Rabbis in Jewish tradition, there were no such cases in Pagan culture. That Jesus was a miracle worker would, in Pagan eyes, imply that he was divine. He would be in danger of just getting added to “the list”. (Dix.)

Paul’s letter of encouragement says Jesus is more than all that. Jesus is everything.

Legalism was (at one time) the idea that following the law would save us. Paul says it is Christ who saves us and urges us to live into that (to act in trust – fideo – on our beliefs – credo). What do we do to “outsiders” though? We could evangelize them, but we often take the shortcut: to pass laws that make them obey our morality even if they are not part of the faith. We feel much safer in a society with a veneer of Christian uniformity. Integralism is legalism in reverse: sure, we have faith. We save the law for the outsiders.


Sources:

Jerusalem Bible,  1968, Doubleday.

The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission. John Koenig, 2000.

Jew and Greek, a Study in the Primitive Church, Dom Gregory Dix, 1953.

New Testament (New Collegeville Bible Commentary) Daniel Durken, series editor. Article on Colossians, Vincent M Smiles; article on Philemon, Terence J. Keegan, OP.

New Testament (Collegeville Bible Commentary) Robert Karris, OFM, general editor. Article on Colossians and Philemon, Ivan Havener, OSB.

You Can Understand the Bible, Peter Kreeft.

Bible Project. Video introductions to Colossians and Philemon.
Poster Summary for Colossians.
Poster Summary for Philemon.

Colossians, Philemon, by Ernest D. Martin (Believers Church Bible Commentary). Retrieved on 3 Mar 22.

Fasting, Abstinence, and Liberation

JMJ

WHAT DID YOU GIVE UP FOR LENT? Don’t tell me – you’re not supposed to tell folks. But what was it? Do you think of it as a struggle or a punishment to do so? Are you making a sacrifice for God? Or are you doing something to make up for your sins? What is fasting about? If you follow through on “just the rules” there is both fasting and abstinence: we’re supposed to eat less, and not eat certain things. And then something else (TV? Chocolate?) sort of creeps in because we know we can substitute something else for the food thing. So, if I give up my phone for a couple of hours a day, then I can keep eating hamburgers, right?

Why do we fast?

In the east and the west, Christians used to have a more strict fast: generally, all animal products were removed from the diet (there were some exceptions for Sundays and feast days). Additionally, the amount of food was limited: one meal a day, only eaten late in the day. The timing was relative to the liturgical practice: you only take communion after fasting. So Mass or (in the east) the Divine Liturgy were postponed until very late in the day. In the west you said Mass in the afternoon. In the East, communion came with Vespers. You ate only after communion.

Why? What’s wrong with meat or cheese or even wine? Nothing at all. Why do we do it then? Can’t we replace giving up wine (how much do we drink anyway?) with no chocolate? And who fasts until 3 in the afternoon? Pshaw. That’s all just showing off. Works don’t make us more holy. God loves us as we are. Those last two sentences are totally true. They are not modern. All of the Church Fathers – including those who wrote the rules about fasting and abstinence – would agree that rules don’t make us holy and God loves us fully even if we eat hamburgers on Good Friday. So what’s this about?

Look at the rules:
– Don’t eat until late in the day.
– Don’t eat more than once.
– Don’t eat animal products.
– Don’t drink alcohol.

Who would those rules affect? Farmers? Peasants? Homeless? Not really at all. Many if not all of these folks were lucky to eat – usually bread and maybe veggies – after working all day. These rules would affect the rich. In fact, these rules would force the rich from your local officials all the way up to the emperor (if he were pious) to live – at least a little – as if they were poor. When coupled with the traditional command to give alms during Lent, this all begins to make sense. Lent is a spiritual practice of solidarity with the poorest in our Christian family. It’s not enough to be in solidarity as such – this is not about political action per se – but it is exactly a political act in itself. It is acting in a way contrary to the world: my riches mean nothing to me. I give them up, even if only for a time, to live in solidarity with the poor. If you realize that the most ancient Christian traditions did not only fast/abstain in Lent, but several periods throughout the year as well as every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, suddenly it’s nearly 50% of the time was some form of Lent, some form of solidarity with the poor.

What made me realize this was a comment about feasting. The rules about fasting only cut out feasting foods. The issue, for us moderns, is that we feast all the time. We have meat all the time. We have fats and adult beverages whenever we want. We have no idea what it means to feast because we don’t have fasting days anymore and – more importantly – we don’t have normal days where it’s mostly a fast. Feasts are not special because every meal is a sumptuous feast from our bagel and coffee to our late-night snack of ice cream. Even our standing in front of the fridge in a daze eating leftovers out of Tupperware with our fingers is feasting.

This is why it’s important not to imagine giving up TV or sweets is the same thing.

Fasting and abstaining are intended to make us uncomfortable, are intended to be hard, not because of our sins but because of our comfort, because of our ease.

The patristic teaching on these practices included the counsel to take what you do not spend on your feasting foods and hand it directly to the poor. What a concept! Fasting leads directly to charity. Abstinence leads to liberation.

Pray
Give up costly things
Give your money to the poor
Pray.

This is not only a problem in the West, even the Orthodox have forgotten the “fasting” part of the equation. A priest commented to me “We too are supposed to only eat one meal a day, but we ignore that part…” They pretty much eat all they want, just vegan. So you can have all the soy ice cream you like. And, as one layman joked, “Who cares if you can’t eat steak. Lobster is fine.” (Shellfish is poor people food…)

If you think, though, that this is about the rules as such, or that fasting is some Mediaeval (and mistaken) idea about paying God back for our sins, then, of course you would get rid of this. You might even quote scripture:

This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

But these are not conflicting: these are the same thing. You can’t share your bread if you eat it…

A blessed Lent!

Ladder Of Divine Ascent

Reading Schedule for 2022

JMJ

ATRADITIONAL LENTEN practice in the eastern churches is to read St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent bit by bit through the Fasting Season. (There’s a PDF here.) Although our Western Lent is a couple of days shorter, it can be done. Here’s a reading schedule if you’d like to read along. Although these are divided into two portions each day, one each for Morning and Evening prayer, you can read in any way that works for you. Please note that while it is available for Kindle, that edition doesn’t seem to have the paragraph “verse” numbers in that edition. The edition from Paulist Press (which I might otherwise prefer) also does not seem to have the verse numbers.

Wed March 21:1-7 / 1:8-18
Thu March 31:19-27 / 2
Fri March 43:1-15 / 3:16-29
Sat March 54:1-10 / 4:11-15
Sun March 6 (Lent 1)4:16-22 / 4:23-26
Mon March 74:27-30 / 4:31-34
Tue March 84:35-41 / 4:42-57
Wed March 94:58-71 / 4:72-91
Thu March 104:92-109 / 4:110-112
Fri March 114:113-126 / 5:1-12
Sat March 125:13-18 / 5:19-23
Sun March 13 (Lent 2)5:24-28 / 5:29-42
Mon March 146 / 7:1-16
Tue March 157:17-31 / 7:32-47
Wed March 167:48-56 / 7:57-70
Thu March 178:1-18 / 8:19-29
Fri March 189 /10
Sat March 1911 / 12
Sun March 20 (Lent 3)13 / 14:1-23
Mon March 2114:24-36 / 15:1-16
Tue March 2215:17-29 / 15:30-41
Wed March 2315:42-55 / 15:56-65
Thu March 2415:66-75 / 15:76-81
Fri March 2515:82-90 / 16
Sat March 2617 / 18
Sun March 27 (Lent 4)19 / 20
Mon March 2821 / 22:1-28
Tue March 2922:29-46 / 23:1-18
Wed March 3023:19-37 / 23:38-52
Thu March 3124:1-19 / 24:20-34
Fri April 125:1-9 / 25:10-29
Sat April 225:30-51 / 25:52-69
Sun April 3 (Lent 5)26:1-16 / 26:17-27
Mon April 426:28-50 / 26:51-69
Tue April 526:70-88 / 26:89-109
Wed April 626:110-123 / 26:124-139
Thu April 726:140-153 / 26:154-170
Fri April 826:171-189 / 26a:1-37
Sat April 926a:38-65 / 27:1-16
Sun April 10 (Palm Sunday)27:17-28 / 27:29-40
Mon April 1127:41-56 / 27:57-70
Tue April 1227:71-87 / 28:1-16
Wed April 1328:17-29 / 28:30-50
Holy Thu April 1428:51-64 / 29
Good Fri April 1530:1-19 / 30:20-end

Edited in on 2 March. The following schedule actually makes more sense: it starts earlier so as to allow for the readings to end on Wednesday of Holy Week and also to not-read on Sundays (traditionally not part of Lenten disciplines). I’m going to catch up to this one.

Mon February 211:1-7 / 1:8-18
Tue February 221:19-27 / 2
Wed February 233:1-15 / 3:16-29
Thu February 244:1-10 / 4:11-15
Fri February 254:16-22 / 4:23-26
Sat February 264:27-30 / 4:31-34
Sun February 27Sunday Before Lent
Mon February 284:35-41 / 4:42-57
Tue March 14:58-71 / 4:72-91
Wed March 24:92-109 / 4:110-112
Thu March 34:113-126 / 5:1-12
Fri March 45:13-18 / 5:19-23
Sat March 55:24-28 / 5:29-42
Sun March 6LENT 1
Mon March 76 / 7:1-16
Tue March 87:17-31 / 7:32-47
Wed March 97:48-56 / 7:57-70
Thu March 108:1-18 / 8:19-29
Fri March 119 /10
Sat March 1211 / 12
Sun March 13LENT 2
Mon March 1413 / 14:1-23
Tue March 1514:24-36 / 15:1-16
Wed March 1615:17-29 / 15:30-41
Thu March 1715:42-55 / 15:56-65
Fri March 1815:66-75 / 15:76-81
Sat March 1915:82-90 / 16
Sun March 20LENT 3
Mon March 2117 / 18
Tue March 2219 / 20
Wed March 2321 / 22:1-28
Thu March 2422:29-46 / 23:1-18
Fri March 2523:19-37 / 23:38-52
Sat March 2624:1-19 / 24:20-34
Sun March 27LENT 4
Mon March 2825:1-9 / 25:10-29
Tue March 2925:30-51 / 25:52-69
Wed March 3026:1-16 / 26:17-27
Thu March 3126:28-50 / 26:51-69
Fri April 126:70-88 / 26:89-109
Sat April 226:110-123 / 26:124-139
Sun April 3LENT 5
Mon April 426:140-153 / 26:154-170
Tue April 526:171-189 / 26a:1-37
Wed April 626a:38-65 / 27:1-16
Thu April 727:17-28 / 27:29-40
Fri April 827:41-56 / 27:57-70
Sat April 927:71-87 / 28:1-16
Sun April 10PALM SUNDAY
Mon April 1128:17-29 / 28:30-50
Tue April 1228:51-64 / 29
Wed April 1330:1-19 / 30:20-end
Thu April 14Maundy Thursday
Fri April 15Good Friday
Sat April 16Holy Saturday
Sun April 17CHRIST IS RISEN!