THE MOST GLORIOUS NATIVITY OF THE MOTHER OF GOD
“Today She is born from the chaste Joachim and Anna, and Adam’s curse upon us is destroyed by Her birth” (stichera for the Vigil).
For five-and-a-half thousand years mankind subconsciously awaited this moment. All that while it could not find in its midst a maiden worthy of becoming the Mother of God incarnate; humanity was unable to produce a Chosen One Who could contain within Herself the Uncontainable.
All spiritual things were foreign to antediluvian mankind. In those days people were so incorrigibly flesh-bound that God eradicated them from the face of the earth in the waters of the deluge and planted a new mankind from the roots of righteous Noah. But Adam’s new progeny did not remember for long the reasons for the deluge and began anew to build a monument to its pride. Then the Lord dispersed the people upon the entire face of the earth, dividing them one from another by a language barrier.
Afterwards He found a shoot of future salvation – Abraham, and planted him in fertile ground, grew a mighty tree from him – the people of Israel, guarded them, cleansed them of idolatry, and finally focused all His attention and concern upon one of its branches – the tribe of Judah, and then concentrated upon a small offshoot – the house of David, which gave the world the everlasting Bloom – the Most-pure Virgin. Such was the divine plan for our salvation – from a dying root to produce a bloom of incorruptibility, chosen from among all ages and people – the Most-blessed Virgin Mary.
This wondrous event took place in a small town in Palestine called Nazareth, where an elderly barren couple gave birth to a Daughter. For many of their neighbors this appeared extraordinary, but not more than that. They were unable to compre-hend the magnitude of the event. Had their spiritual eyes been open, they would have seen a wondrous sight: the Son of God attending the birth of the Holy Virgin; angels reverently surrounding the newborn Maiden, greater than the cherubim and higher than the seraphim; Adam and Eve spiritually triumphant, seeing the ancient prophecy coming to pass – the birth of a Maiden Whose seed would destroy the head of the ancient serpent (Gen. 3:15). Repentant sinners rejoice, for into the fallen world has come the Surety of sinners, the Intercessor for the damned, the Joy of all who sorrow.
The Mother of God loves and hears all those who pray to Her in the simplicity of their hearts, for “through the doors of Her mercy everyone enters freely with prayer” (St. Dimitri of Rostov).
Let us not pass by this door, dear brethren, by forgetting to pray, and let us not thus send away, as did antediluvian mankind, the Merciful Intercessor from our midst.
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia,” No. 17, 2001)
THE UNIVERSAL EXALTATION AND ELEVATION
OF THE HOLY AND LIVE-GIVING CROSS OF CHRIST
The universal exaltation and elevation of the holy and life-giving Cross of Christ is one of the twelve great feast days of the Orthodox Church. This feast also commemorates events that happened over 300 years after those celebrated in the other great feasts of the Church. While historically significant, its relevance to the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church is even more important.
The feast of the Elevation celebrates the discovery by Saint Helena of the holy Cross upon which our Saviour had been crucified, and of the many miracles it wrought. Yet the significance of this day is twofold. This feast connects the events of the New Testament with the life of the Christian Church after it had become an established institution in the Roman Empire. While the end of Roman persecution was a relief to the Church, many Christians feared that it would lead to spiritual decline and a loss of commitment by the majority of believers. The discovery of the Holy Cross was a reminder to Christians of the great mystery of God’s condescension in becoming human and suffering the agony of crucifixion, in order to sanctify and purify His creation. This sacrifice made the salvation of humanity possible. Christ became a model for a new way of life, free from the weight of the material world and its eventual outcome, which was death. Through God’s taking on of flesh, humans were freed of their slavery to flesh. Humanity’s ignorance of its true nature, which is spiritual, was ended, and eternal life again became possible. Christians were further reminded that it was through the shedding of Christ’s blood on the Cross that the human race was redeemed and freed from the curse of Adam and Eve. It is for this reason that the Elevation of the Holy Cross is observed as a strict fasting day, even if it falls on a Sunday.
Historically the feast has great meaning for the Church. Before the discovery of the Holy Cross by St. Helena, it was not a commonly used Christian symbol. Early Christians used the fish to identify each other as the followers of Christ. As it was a criminal offence punishable by death to belong to the Christian faith in the Roman Empire before the holy Emperor Constantine established its legality in A.D. 313, most Christians were careful to keep their religion a secret. The Greek word for fish – “ichthys” – was a Christian anagram or a word whose letters are abbreviations for other words: I = Isous (Jesus), CH = Christos (Christ), TH = Theou (of God), Y = Yios (Son), S = Sotir (Saviour). Other frequently used early Christian symbols were the lamb (Christ is the Good Shepherd) and the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – alpha and omega (indicating that Christ is God Who is the beginning and end of all things).
The reason that Greek, rather than Hebrew, Aramaic, or Latin terms were used is that Christianity developed in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. This consisted of the eastern Mediterranean region, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and the Middle East, which had been Hellenized by Alexander the Great centuries before Roman domination. Greek had been the international language of the region, making it possible for diplomats, scholars, scientists, philosophers, and merchants to communicate and share ideas. The most effective way for the Christian Church to spread its message and gain converts throughout the Empire was to use the Greek language. It is for this reason that the New Testament, the Divine services, and the Canon (Church) Law were written in Greek.
St. Constantine was also responsible for the introduction of a new Christian symbol – the Cross. According to the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesaria, the Emperor had a vision on the eve of his final battle with his rival Maxentius for Rome in 312. He saw a cross, normally a sign of death to a Roman, but heard a voice saying: “With this thou shalt conquer.” The seemingly contradictory message was understood by him to be a sign of favor from the Christian God. Constantine ordered his troops to paint the first two letters of “Christos” (“Christ or Messiah”) in Greek, the XP, on their shields. This soon became a symbol of the faith, as did the Holy Cross.
Constantine’s subsequent victory gave him a reason to officially legalize the practice of Christianity the following year with the Edict of Milan (313). Being the ruler of a largely pagan empire (Christians constituted no more than 10% of the total population at the time), Constantine himself only converted to Christianity on his deathbed in 337. He did much, however, to assist the new faith in growing. By providing the Church with enormous financial and political support, he established it as a legitimate Roman institution. The Emperor was also responsible for organizing the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325.
In A.D. 326, Constantine sent his mother, the Dowager Empress Saint Helena, to Jerusalem to build up the Church in the Holy Land. She began the building of churches on all the holy sites in Jerusalem. According to Church tradition, St. Helena then had a dream that showed her the location of the Holy Cross in a spot near the site of Golgotha, where Christ had been crucified. The next day the Dowager Empress, accompanied by Patriarch Macarius of Jerusalem, the Roman Procurator, and a large retinue of clergy and soldiers, went to that area. As Saint Helena had seen in her dream, basil was growing on an otherwise barren piece of land. When they dug there, they found three large crosses. It is for this reason that basil is used in churches to decorate the Cross on the feast of the Elevation.
Upon returning to Jerusalem, there was no way to tell which one was the Holy Cross on which Christ had been crucified. However, a dying woman was revived upon touching one of the crosses. Other sick and dying people were also healed by the same cross, while the other two crosses wrought no miracles. Once the Holy Cross was identified, the people worshipped God with great devotion, singing “Lord have mercy.” Since a large crowd had gathered and not everyone could see the Cross, Patriarch Macarius and the clergy raised the Cross high up. This started the tradition of the ceremony of elevating the Cross on the feast of the Elevation.
A portion of the Holy Cross was taken back to Constantinople by St. Helena, while the rest of it was put in a silver reliquary (container for sacred objects) and placed in the newly-built church on the site of Golgotha. Within a few years, the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on the day it was discovered, i.e. September 14th by the old calendar (27th by the new), was established throughout the Christian world.
The feast of the Elevation continues to be a reminder of how Christ’s sacrifice transformed a symbol of fear and death into one of hope and eternal life. In the kontakion for the feast of the Elevation, the Cross is referred to as “the weapon of peace and trophy invincible.” Once the sign of the worst form of execution in the Roman world, it became the chief symbol and true spiritual strength of the Christian faith. This remarkable transformation is also a reflection of the positive impact that Christ and His Church have had on humanity. Most of our modern moral code is the direct result of the establishment of Christianity. The Holy Cross continues to encourage us to follow Christ in faith. As St. Macarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, raised the Holy Cross high, so let us raise ourselves from the material world to the heights of spirituality!
THE SACRAMENT OF PENITENCE
Discourses on confession (1)
“Now has come a favorable time, and the day of purification.” A time when we can put aside the heavy burden of sinfulness, sever the fetters of sin, see our soul renewed and enlightened. But the way to this blessed purification is not easy. We have not yet approached confession, but our soul already hears tempting voices: “Should I not put it off? Am I truly prepared? Do I not take communion too often?” We must firmly repulse such doubts. “If thou art approaching to serve the Lord God, thou must prepare thy soul for temptations” (Sirach 2:1). If you have decided to prepare for communion, a multitude of internal and external obstacles will appear; however, they will disappear as soon as you exhibit firmness of intention.
Concerning the matter of frequent confession: we must go to confession much more often that is customary among us; at least during all the four periods of lent. We, who are unskilled in penitence, must over and over again learn to repent; this first of all, and secondly – it is essential to keep a thread running from confession to confession, so that the intervals between our partaking of communion would be filled with spiritual struggles and labors, fed by impressions from the previous confession and fueled by anticipation of another imminent confession.
Another troubling question concerns the father-confessor: to whom should we go? Should we hold on to the same one, no matter what? Can we change them? Under what circumstances? Holy Fathers experienced in spiritual life assert that we should not change confessors, even if we are talking only about a confessor and not a spiritual father who guides your conscience. It sometimes happens that after a successful confession with a certain priest, subsequent confessions with him can be sluggish and emotionally unsatisfying, and it is then that the thought appears of changing confessors. But these are insufficient grounds for taking such a serious step. Not to mention the fact that our subjective feelings during confession have no bearing upon the essence of the sacrament, – the lack of spiritual uplifting during confession is often a sign of our own spiritual inadequacy. Concerning this St. John of Kronstadt says the following: “Repentance must be exhibited absolutely freely and in no way extorted by the confessor.” For a person who truly suffers from the wound of his sin, it does not matter through whom he confesses the sin which torments him; he only wishes to confess it as quickly as possible and be eased of the torment. It is a different matter if we, setting aside the true nature of repentance, seek confession simply as an outlet for discussion. At this point it is important to distinguish confession from spiritual conversation, which should preferably take place outside the sacrament, because any conversation, even about spiritual matters, tends to cool the penitent’s ardor, entangle him in theological arguments, and weaken the feeling of repentance.
Confession is not a conversation about one’s shortcomings or doubts, nor a vehicle for providing the father-confessor with information about oneself, and least of all – a “pious custom.” Confession is a fiery repentance of the heart, a thirst for purification, a wish for holiness, a dying of sin and a revival of sanctity. Repentance is already a degree of holiness, while insensibility and disbelief are a state outside of holiness, outside of God.
Let us look at how we should approach the sacrament of penitence, what is required from the penitent, how to prepare for the sacrament, and what to consider as being the most important moment (in the part of the sacrament pertaining to the penitent).
Undoubtedly the first step is the examination of one’s heart. This is the reason for having to prepare oneself for communion. “To see one’s sins in all their multitude and in all their foulness is truly a gift from God,” – says St. John of Kronstadt. Most people, inexperienced in spiritual life, usually see neither the multitude, nor the vileness of their sins. “Nothing special,” “like everyone else,” “just small sins – I’ve neither stolen, nor killed” – this is how many people begin their confession. And what about egotism, callousness, inability to accept criticism, obsequiousness, lack of faith and love, faintheartedness, spiritual idleness – are these not major sins? Can we assert that we truly love God, that our faith is fervent and active? That we love each person as our brother in Christ? That we have attained meekness, placidity, humility? If not, what does our Christianity betoken? How else can we explain our self-confidence during confession, if not by “petrified insensibility, numbness of the heart, spiritual death which has fore-shadowed the physical one”? Why did the Holy Fathers who had composed prayers of repentance regard themselves as the greatest of sinners and fervently cried out to the Saviour: “No one hath ever sinned on earth as I, the iniquitous one, have sinned,” while we are certain that we are in good shape?! The brighter the light of Christ illuminates our hearts, the clearer we recognize our spiritual short-comings, ulcers, and wounds. And, conversely, people immersed in the darkness of sin are unable to see anything within their heart; and even if they see something, they are not frightened, because they have nothing with which to compare what they see.
Thus the direct path to recognition of one’s sins is by approaching light and praying for this light which judges the world and all that is of the world within us (John 3:19). But until we achieve such closeness to Christ that the feeling of repentance becomes our usual state of mind, we must, while preparing for confession, examine our conscience – by the light of Church commandments, prayers, and the Gospel.
As we sort out our inner holdings, we must try to distinguish basic sins from those that are derivative, distinguish symptoms from primary causes. For example, it is important to note within oneself the wandering of the mind during prayers, inattentiveness in church, lack of interest in reading the Holy Scriptures; but do these sins not spring from lack of faith and little love for God? We should recognize within ourselves the sins of willfulness, disobedience, self-justification, inability to accept criticism, stubbornness; but it is even more important to discover their link to egotism and pride. If we notice within ourselves a tendency towards socializing, gossip, mockery, extreme concern for our appearance, and not only our own, but also that of our family members, concern about the furnishing of our home, – then we must carefully consider whether this is not a form of vanity. If we become too upset over life’s misfortunes, are heartbroken at partings, grieve inconsolably over our departed ones, does this not testify – besides the power and depth of our feelings – to our lack of faith in God’s Providence?
There is another means of gaining an awareness of our sins – and that is to take note of the habitual accusations of other people who live alongside of us, take note of the reproaches of our near ones: their accusations and reproaches almost always have a valid foundation.
Before going to confession, it is imperative to ask forgiveness of all those whom we had offended, and to approach confession with an unburdened conscience.
However, while examining one’s heart, one must be careful not to fall into extreme mistrust and petty suspicion of every movement of the heart; having stepped onto that path, one can easily lose sight of what is important and what is not, one can become lost among trivialities. In such a case it is best to temporarily suspend the examination of one’s heart, and to simplify and enlighten the heart by means of prayer and good deeds.
(To be continued)
CHRIST ON TRIAL BEFORE PILATE
(see beginning here)
Jesus Christ before Herod
It was not easy for the Divine Prisoner, Who had spent the entire night in agony, to walk through the streets of the city in the same manner as He had been led out of the Sanhedrin, i.e. in fetters and under guard. He was followed by His accusers, who had no excuse to contest Pilate’s order, although it was quite unpleasant and even threatening for them. For it was not without fear that they walked behind the Prisoner, Who could be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, running up to see, as though it were a miracle, the Resurrector of the dead finding Himself in mortal danger. But nothing could be done about it – they had to appear before Herod in person, in order to demand the death sentence for the One Who for a long time already was seen by them as a highly dangerous adversary. And thus all the Jewish princes gathered before Herod, who had a title and was still called king among the people, as though expressly to fulfill the prophetic words: the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His anointed (Psalm 2:2).
King Herod, the same one who for his wife’s sake had executed St. John the Baptist, had for a long time wanted to see Jesus, of Whom he even thought that He was John arisen from the dead. Now His appearance in the king’s home was so unexpected and pleasant that, seeing Jesus, Herod was greatly gladdened; he had naturally heard much of His miracles, and he now wished to see some kind of miracle. The haughty ruler imagined that now, threatened by death, the condemned Miracle-worker would reveal to Herod all the miracles of His power or His art, in order to bend Herod to mercy, and began to question Him at length. But the lawless ruler’s curiosity was not satisfied; the Lord did not respond with a single word, nor did He even show any sign of being ready to perform a miracle in order to fulfill the king’s wish. The Son of God stood there just as He had done in the desert where He was being tempted by the devil and encouraged to use His power to work miracles for His own benefit. And so Herod, too, after the joy of anticipating seeing a miracle, became greatly indignant; making use of this occasion, the high priests once again began to slander Jesus, trying to prove that He was a rebel against authority, a disturber of the peace, and without any doubt merited a death sentence. As though illustrating His enemies’ calumniation, Christ’s continuing silence served as an example of His supposed insubordination to authority; therefore, Herod immediately began to humiliate and berate Him for the fact that He, being of lowly origin and possessing neither knowledge, nor military abilities, decided to make Himself out as a king. However, even Herod believed that a man who, as he thought, wanted to be Christ with only a tendency for earthly preaching, presented no danger to the government. It seemed to him that such people merited not death, but mockery, and thus he tried to humiliate Jesus as much as possible. The throng of soldiers and commanding officers sur-rounding him followed the example of their ruler; the air became filled with taunts, coarse and needling insults, and the Son of man was scorned by all and derided. For His trial shall proceed in humility, as the prophet Isaiah foretold (59:3).
Having sufficiently humiliated and mocked Jesus, in addition to all his insults Herod ordered that He be dressed in a long white shiny garment, such as was usually worn among Romans by those who were assigned to an important position. Thus, thought the jeering Herod, should be dressed the one who so foolhardily presents himself as the king of the Jews; and in this garment he sent Jesus Christ back to Pilate to be tried. Through such mutual respect for each other Pilate and Herod reconciled themselves, for previously they had been enemies. The suffering Redeemer of the world had now made them friends again.
Pilate’s defense of Jesus Christ
The sun was already high, and time was passing without any success for Christ’s enemies, who were impatiently waiting to quickly finish the deed they had begun. It was unbearable for the priests and elders to drag themselves from one court to another and, moreover, without any definite hope. Irritated by the situation, they decided to apply their collective pressure upon Pilate; for besides aggressive insistence, they could not find any other strong means to influence the judge and condemn Jesus to a shameful death. And Pilate was quite aware that the arrogant members of the Sanhedrin wished him to judge according to their will, which for him, as a ruler, was totally unacceptable; for it seemed to him quite humiliating to be for the Sanhedrin simply an instrument of revenge and not of justice. This already indicated that there would be another confrontation between Pilate and the Sanhedrin, – which did, in fact, take place.
After the return of the rebellious Sanhedrin, Pilate was forced to once more judge Jesus Christ. Although he did not have a high opinion of Him, neither did he find in Him any blame meriting the death sentence. However, he was not really a lover of truth; he only wished not to be the one to condemn the Innocent One, and for this reason he had first tried to palm off Jesus Christ to the Sanhedrin for trial, then sent Him to Herod. Now Pilate was once again forced to engage in a trial that was so unpleasant for him, – and there was nothing to be done about it; and so the Roman nobleman now appeared in all the splendor with which Rome decorated its representatives. The Romans loved to use the splendor of garments and the elegance of décor to earn popular respect. And now the ruler of the Jewish people, dressed in silk purple robes, proudly ascended a throne made of ivory and tried with his majestic appearance to make the assembled crowd submissive to him. At that time Roman trials usually took place in the open air; for this reason the Roman governor’s judgment seat was set up outside, in the middle of a small area inlaid with marble, for which it was known as the “lithostroton,” i.e. stone pavement. Sitting down upon his judgment seat and summoning the high priests, and the elders, and the people to him, Pilate said to them: “Ye have brought this man (pointing to Christ) unto me, as one that perverteth the people; and behold, I, having examined Him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse Him. No, nor yet Herod; for I sent you to him, and lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto Him. I will, therefore, chastise Him and release Him.” These words already show the weakness of Pilate’s truth, for he acknowledges Jesus Christ to be innocent, and yet at the same time wants to chastise Him simply in order to ingratiate himself with the Jews, being totally unconcerned with the fact that such pandering would bring undeserved suffering to the Righteous One. But even such an unjust sentence was not acceptable to Christ’s enemies: they could not bear to hear Pilate’s witness to Jesus’ innocence, and so they decisively declared that they would not be satisfied with any other punishment except execution.
Pilate, not wishing to execute a man who was without blame, and not finding any means of saving His life, now sat totally perplexed as to what to do. The power-hungry governor was frustrated by the defiance of his subordinates, but there was nothing to be done – it was impossible to free on his own a man condemned by the Sanhedrin. While Pilate sat, deep in thought, the people suddenly began shouting and asking for the favor usually granted them: that is, to release one of the imprisoned criminals for the sake of Passover. This right to choose one of the criminals was given to the common people; and then Pilate had the idea to make use of this occasion in order to release Jesus. He knew that the common people were attached to Him, and that the high priests had betrayed Him solely out of envy. At that time there was imprisoned a certain robber by the name of Barabbas, who had been thrown into jail together with other mutineers for engaging in sedition and murder in the city. Pilate decided to place this criminal alongside Jesus and offer the people the choice. Calling the people to him, Pilate asked them: “Whom will ye that I release unto you – Barabbas or Jesus, which is called Christ?” It was not without reason that Pilate mentioned the name Christ, because it embodied all the fond hopes of the Jewish people, sighing for their ancient freedom and now impatiently awaiting the coming of the King – the Christ. “Ye have a custom, – continued the governor, – that I should release unto you one at the Passover: will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” In other words, the governor was saying to the people, even justice itself demands that freedom be given to the One whose only blame is in calling Himself King of the Jews.
Then the high priests and the elders, seeing that the people were ready to accede to Pilate’s wish, immediately went into the midst of the crowd and began instructing it to preferably ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. They tried to brainwash the people with the following thoughts: that He represents a danger to their well-being; that He is not Christ at all, but a hypocrite and deceiver, and that the miracles He wrought were false. Who could not but see that He expelled demons with the power of Beelzebub, that the demonic forces assisted Him in everything? For when did He work miracles most frequently? – on Saturdays, contrary to the law of Moses. And what did He teach? – He criticized patristic traditions, threatened to destroy the temple, mocked all holy things, including us high priests. And how does He live? – He eats and drinks with publicans and sinners, is friendly with the Samaritans, collects followers from among despicable people. And such a man calls Himself Christ! If He truly were Christ, would He have allowed Himself to be so humiliated – tied up and standing in judgment before a pagan? Besides, who can expect the Christ to appear out of Nazareth, from Galilee, from a carpenter’s home? Can this son of Joseph really restore the throne of David? Look at this man: is He really the victorious descendant of King David, now awaiting mercy from an uncircumcised pagan? Even when He was free, He always insisted: pay Caesar his due, pay him his due! And do you not see how Pilate mocks you when he calls Him your king and asks you for His freedom? We are the descendants of Abraham, the sons of freedom, the people of God! O, may you serve the name of God by giving unto death this man who has called Himself the Son of God! May the one who says even a single word in defense of the carpenter’s son be cursed! In this manner the high priests incited the common people against Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, as the high priests’ evil counseling of the people proceeded, and Pilate sat upon his judgment seat and tried other prisoners, Divine providence pro-vided him with yet another indication regarding the need to defend the innocent Prisoner. During the night Pilate’s wife saw a terrible dream, and immediately upon awakening she sent a servant to her husband to say: “Have thou nothing to do with that just man, do not do Him any injustice, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of Him.” There are no ancient accounts about what Pilate’s wife saw in her dream; however, it is known that afterwards Procula (her name) came to believe in Christ and was canonized as a saint (she is commemorated on October 27th). Her message inspired Pilate with an even greater desire to defend Jesus.
Finally the incited crowd approached the judgment seat, and Pilate asked them: “Which of the twain will ye that I release unto you?” If you do not wish Jesus released as an innocent man, then at least release Him as a guilty one, for the sake of the Passover. “Not Him, but Barabbas,” – cried out voices all around him. Then Pilate, again raising his voice, asked: “What shall I do then with the one whom you call King of the Jews?” Let Him go?!... “Let this one die, but release Barabbas,” – several voices were heard to say. “Let Him be crucified!” – shouted everyone. And for the third time Pilate said unto them: “Why, what evil hath He done? I have not found anything worthy of death in Him. I will therefore chastise Him and release Him.” But they shouted even more loudly: “Crucify Him, crucify Him! Let Him be crucified!” And they insisted, demanding with loud shouting that He be crucified; and the voice of them and of the chief priests prevailed.
The tormenting of Jesus Christ
Neither Pilate’s own acknowledgment of Jesus’ innocence, nor his wife’s warning and request were of any avail to him. In view of the people’s incessant clamor to crucify the Righteous One, it seemed a triumph of justice to Pilate to simply chastise Christ and thus save His life. For this reason Pilate took Jesus into the Praetorium and ordered the soldiers to flog Him; and so they gathered the entire regiment, and taking off His own garments, they dressed Him in a scarlet mantle that fell above the knees. Such garments were usually worn by important military people; the mantle was sleeveless and was fastened on the right shoulder. After that, in order to present Jesus Christ in the dignity of a Jewish king, the soldiers made a crown out of the thorniest and prickliest branches, and placed it upon His head. Although this crown was fashioned for the sake of mockery, this mockery cost much blood and wounds. Moreover, it seemed to the tormentors that the imaginary king lacked a scepter or a staff, and instead of it they placed a cane into the right hand of Jesus Christ. This was followed by crude ridicule and humiliation of Christ as a false Jewish king. Since respect for a king was shown by falling on one’s knees before him, these lovers of derision now did the same – they came up one by one and stood on their knees before Jesus Christ, and mockingly said to Him: Hail, king of the Jews! and then struck his cheeks and spit upon Him, and took the cane out of His hands and beat Him over the head with this cane, and then again got down on their knees and bowed before Him.
After such torment Pilate once again brought Jesus out before the people and stood Him upon a high arch or closed passage constructed over the gates. “Behold, I bring Him forth to you, – said Pilate loudly, – that ye may know that I find no fault in Him.” Then the bloodied Jesus, in a crown of thorns and a scarlet mantle, was shown to the entire people, and Pilate said to them: “Behold the man!” With these words he wished to touch the hearts of the common people, to bring all of them to a feeling of compassion for Him. It was as though Pilate said: behold how the Innocent One has been wounded only for having called Himself king! Behold how He is now humiliated for this, – His entire appearance has become ignoble and debased beyond that of all the sons of men! Gazing with prophetic eyes upon the Divine Sufferer, the prophet Isaiah cried out in ancient times: For many shall be afeared of Thee, Thy visage being so marred more than any man, and Thy glory more than the sons of men (Isaiah 52:14).
But here among the people also stood the high priests and their servants; when they saw Jesus and Pilate’s intention to let Him go, they all shouted together with their servants: crucify, crucify Him! “Take ye Him, – Pilate finally cried out, – and crucify Him, for I find no fault in Him.” But the Jews replied to him: “We have a law, and by our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God.” Upon hearing these words, Pilate became even more afraid. Immediately the thought came into his mind that Jesus was some kind of demigod, as the pagans believed of some of their kings; this seemed to be confirmed by his wife’s wondrous dream. For this reason the judge, full of fear and doubt, immediately returned to the Praetorium, giving the sign for Jesus Christ to be brought in after him.
“Whence art Thou?” – was Pilate’s question; but Jesus gave him no answer. “Speakest Thou not unto me? – said Pilate resentfully; – knowest Thou that I have power to crucify Thee, and power to release Thee?” Where did the arrogant judge’s fear suddenly disappear? It had been born of shallowness, while the haughty feeling of his power over the Prisoner dispersed it straightaway. Pilate thought that even if this were the Son of God, He still ought to reply to the one who had power over Him, ought to use all possible means to escape death. But would a man who knew not the true God be able to understand how the Son of God became the Son of man, if even those who rested upon the law of Moses could not understand?! And Jesus’ silence was an example of His teaching: do not cast pearls before swine. Pilate did not receive an answer only when he asked out of curiosity, while when he was able to be instructed, the Lord always replied to him with full desire to bring him to the knowledge of truth. And now Jesus said to Pilate: “Thou couldest have no power at all against Me, except it were given thee from above; therefore, he that delivered Me to thee hath the greater sin.”
Did or did not the unjust judge now understand that he had a heavenly judge above him, and that he sinned if he condemned an innocent man to death? It was only noticeable that every time Pilate conversed with Jesus Christ, he always returned to His accusers with a renewed desire to protect Him from death. So it was now too: after this last conversation with Jesus, Pilate made an even greater attempt to release Him. He probably relied on his power and undoubtedly wished to act according to his own wishes, in order for the Innocent One’s torments not to have been in vain. But what did his power avail before the multidinous and rebellious rabble, which, inspired by the personal presence of its leaders, was ready for anything and everything? The more Pilate wished to release Jesus, the louder the Jews continued to clamor for His death. Pilate decisively said: I have already chastised Him and will release Him. But the Jews cried out: “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend; whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar,” and equally does the one who defends such a man.
Hearing such ominous words, Pilate suddenly changed, led Jesus out of the Praetorium, and sat down in his judgment seat. The accusers approached him, expecting the end of the affair, and all noise was replaced by silence. It was the last hour before midday, the sixth hour according to Jewish reckoning. The sun did not stop shining both upon good people and the evil ones who were demanding death for the Son of God. Pilate once again said to the Jews with some assurance: “Behold your King!” But they continued to clamor: crucify Him! crucify Him! “Shall I crucify your King?” said Pilate once more, gazing upon the One Whom he was being forced to condemn to death against his own will. But the high priests replied on behalf of all: “We have no king, but Caesar.” Then Pilate, seeing that there was no help, and that the unrest was growing, decided to satisfy their request.
The one who just a while ago had boasted of his power and had said to the great Prisoner: I have power to crucify Thee and power to release Thee, – now sat with his head bowed down. The fierce shouting of the people, which demonstrated that they were ready for any action in case their leaders’ wishes were unfulfilled, took away from him all desire to defend the Innocent One. What can I do to defend this Righteous One? – thought Pilate. – My power is like a shadow before this rebellious crowd; and there are so few Roman troops here! What can I do with this people, so unruly in nature? Their insolence threatens even the power of Roman rule, which has no defense here except its glory. And, in fact, never before had there been such strident noise in front of the Praetorium as there was now. The number of people increased every minute, and the high priests and elders, thirsting for Jesus’ blood, were ready to seize the Victim by force from the biased judge. Nowhere else could such unrest and agitation be seen as here; all faces reflected the same hatred, all breathed with the same rage. Jesus Christ alone stood among them calm, immobile, with an indescribable expression of peace and meekness on His face. Insults, humiliation, threats – nothing could cloud His clear gaze. He stood before the judgment seat bound and surrounded by armed guards, but it seemed that His soul strained upward to the invisible throne of celestial justice.
(To be continued)
The judgment of the Cross
Have you ever placed, O Christian, your life and your conscience before the judgment of Christ’s Cross on the Golgotha? Have you ever thought of what kind of answer you should give to the Son of God Who has suffered for your sake?
There is a story of how a certain unbeliever, entering the dilapidated hut of a fisherman, saw a holy Crucifix there and read the following inscription over it: “This is what I have done for thee, and what hast thou done for Me?” These words changed the unbeliever’s life. He felt in them the summons of God’s truth and sacrificial Love, and followed Christ.
Thus now, too, as the life-giving Cross of Christ lies before us, it appeals directly to the life and conscience of each one of us. Let us place ourselves before its judgment… with all our constant frailties and weaknesses, with all our constant service to sin.
The sacrament of Love was realized upon Golgotha: the Lord ascended the Cross in order to save the world from delusion, from enticement with sin. And in the continuous labor of struggling with sin, loyalty to Golgotha is revealed in a Christian’s life.
Let us place our life and conscience before the judgment of the Cross, not in order to fall under condemnation, but in order to condemn the sin that lives within us and to cease being the slaves of sin.
For in the Cross there is not only condemnation of evil, but also the strength for combating it, and the joy of victory, and the rapture of eternal serenity in God, prepared for all who have served the Cross in their lives.
Hieromonk Methody, “Before the eyes of God’s truth”)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia, No. 21, 2007)
In one of the Sunday Gospel readings we hear of the healing of a man possessed by demons, who lived in the country of the Gadarenes. This possessed man suffered for many years, and his illness even caused him to terrorize the citizens of that land.
When the demons that possessed this wretched man saw the Lord Jesus Christ approaching, they cried out, asking the Lord to simply let them go out of the man and allow them to enter a herd of swine. The Lord let them do so. But what happened next? Even the swine could not tolerate such demonic possession, and so they committed suicide by throwing themselves into the lake and drowning.
But this is not the point of the Gospel reading. Most important – and most terrible – was that which happened afterwards, that which was done by the inhabitants of the land. They came out to meet the Lord… not to invite Him to stay with them, nor to listen to His wondrous teaching, nor to thank Him for healing their wretched compatriot, from whom they themselves had suffered. Not at all. They came to ask Him to go away from them.
Here we must ponder carefully – are we not just like those Gadarenes? The event described in the Gospel took place nearly 2,000 years ago. We may well think that people are different now. But if we look closely, we shall see that we have not changed all that much in our relation to God, in our spiritual condition.
The Gadarenes became angry at the Lord over the loss of their swine, which were the source of their profit, their wealth. That was all they could think about. They were not gladdened at all by the great miracle of their compatriot being healed of demonic possession. And the fact that they asked the Lord to go away from them demonstrates to us their complete indifference to spiritual salvation.
Yet we, in our enlightened 21st century, find ourselves in a similar state! Every person living on earth has to work, has to fulfill his obedience. But if our work turns into a pursuit of wealth, and if thoughts of this wealth begin to dominate our minds at the expense of spiritual salvation, then we become quite similar to those Gadarenes. We chase the Lord away from us.
This, of course, is a visible similarity. But there is also an invisible one. Let us think – how many of us are in church for the vigil on Saturday nights? How many of us come to the vigil on the eve of major feasts? People find all kinds of excuses why they could not come to the evening service – some are tired, others are busy, still others just have no time. But is this not the same as saying: “Go away from us?”
In church the Lord Himself is with us. The Lord Himself, Who had healed the man possessed by demons, heals all of us – heals our illnesses, our afflictions, our sorrows. Just like the possessed Gadarene, after being healed, sat at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, so we, when we come to church, clothe our-selves in salvation and acquire a spiritually sound mind.
And how important it is to have a spiritually sound mind and to always be with the Lord! The Gospel reading about the rich man and Lazarus clearly shows us that those attributes of the soul with which we live in this world will be surely transferred with us into the next world. The rich man, for example, was used to having all that he wanted in this life, was accustomed to ordering people around, and in this precise state of mind he passed into eternity. So we see him, even in hell, expecting to have his wishes fulfilled and issuing commands even to Abraham himself.
This holds true for us, too – whatever we live with in this life, this is what we will take with us into eternity. Therefore, we should make every effort, while we still have the time and the opportunity, not to chase the Lord away from us with our spiritual indifference and our neglect of church services, but rather to follow the example of the man formerly possessed by demons, who sat at the feet of Jesus in his right mind. Amen.
THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
(see beginning here)
Sex, Children, Birth Control, Divorce
This brings me to the most difficult and controversial question of all – what everyone wants to know about and no one wants to ask about: birth control.
Frankly, it is difficult to know where to start, because the subject has many ramifications. Perhaps I might begin by mentioning how other churches tend to view this question. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, artificial birth control is forbidden under any circumstances. The reason is because the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches that the primary purpose and function of marriage is to have children; thus procreation is the primary reason for sexual intercourse. This teaching is rooted in the Augustinian tradition, which treats sexuality, even within marriage, as basically sinful, and therefore procreation is held to be a necessary justification for the marriage act, as it serves to fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. In Old Testament times there was a legitimate concern to perpetuate the human race. Today, however, that argument is unpersuasive, and many Roman Catholics feel justified in disregarding it.
Protestants, on the other hand, have never developed a clear teaching on marriage and sex. Nowhere is birth control explicitly mentioned in the Bible, so when the Pill became available in the early ‘60s, they welcomed it and other reproductive technologies as milestones in the march of human progress. Very soon there came a proliferation of sex manuals, all developed on the notion that God had given man sexuality for pleasure. The primary purpose of the marriage act be-came not procreation but recreation, an attitude which simply fortified the Protestant teaching that God wants man to be personally fulfilled and happy, and therefore sexually gratified. Even abortion was acceptable. It was only in the mid ‘70s, when the Roe v. Wade debate heated up, and it became increasingly evident that abortion was murder that evangelical Protestants began to rethink their position. In the late ‘70s they came aboard the pro-life cause, where they remain in the forefront today. It was the issue of abortion that made them realize that human life must be protected from the moment of conception, and that contraception by means of abortifacients was impermissible. Meanwhile, liberal Protestant mainline churches remain committed to the pro-abortion position, and have no restrictions on birth control.
It is important for us to be aware of the teachings of these other churches on the subject of sexuality, for they can consciously affect our own views. We must be aware, furthermore, of the pervasive influence on our society of the sexual revolution unleashed by the availability of the Pill. The promiscuous attitude that it fostered still prevails today. Because of our culture’s obsession with sex and sexual gratification, it is essential that we have a clear understanding of our Church’s teaching concerning sexuality. This teaching is found in Scripture, in the canons of various Ecumenical and Local Councils, in the writings and commentaries of various Holy Fathers of the Church, who far from avoiding or tiptoeing around this issue, write about it very frankly and at length; and, finally, this teaching is mirrored in the lives of many of the saints (the parents of Saint Sergius of Radonezh come to mind).
The specific subject of birth control is less readily accessible; one cannot simply look it up in a concordance or index. It can, however, be extrapolated from the very clear teachings of the Church on abortion, on marriage, and on asceticism. Before plunging into a discussion on the subject, we should point out that the Orthodox Church is not as dogmatic here as the Roman Catholic Church, and it is very much a pastoral issue where there may be multiple considerations. Nevertheless, liberty should not be used for license, and we would all do well to keep before us the age-old standard given us by the Church.
Having said all this, what exactly is the Church’s teaching concerning birth control?
The practice of artificial birth control – by which is meant the Pill, condoms, or any other kind of device – is actually condemned by the Orthodox Church. The Church of Greece, for example, in 1937 issued a special encyclical just for this purpose – to condemn birth control. Likewise, the Romanian and Russian Churches – to name just two others among many – have more than once, in former times, spoken out against this practice. It is only in recent times, only in the generation since World War II, that some local Churches (the Greek Archdiocese in this country, for example) have begun to teach that it “might” be all right to practice birth control in certain circumstances, as long as this is discussed with the priest beforehand and has his agreement.
This teaching of our Church, however, should not be construed as being the same kind of teaching as is found in the Roman Catholic Church. The consistent teaching of the Church of Rome has been and is that having children is the primary function of marriage. This is not the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy, by contrast, gives the first place to the spiritual purpose of marriage – which is the mutual salvation of the husband and wife. Each is to help and encourage the other in saving his or her soul. Each exists for the other, as a companion, a helper, a friend. But secondarily, children are the natural result of a marriage and, until relatively recent times, they were the expected and much-desired result of a marriage. Children were sought as a fruit of the marriage union, a proof that a man and a woman had become one flesh, and this was always seen as a very great blessing on a marriage. It was considered a great tragedy, a great sorrow, if the marriage was childless.
Nowadays, of course, our society considers children more of a nuisance than a blessing, and many couples wait one, two, three, or even more years before they have a child. Indeed, some decide never to have children. And so, although in the Orthodox Church the first purpose of marriage is not merely to have children, the desire of most young marrieds today to wait before having children is considered sinful. As a priest, I must say to any couple that approaches me for marriage that, if they are not prepared and willing to conceive and bear a child, without interfering with the will of God by means of artificial birth control, then they are not ready to be married. If they are not prepared to accept the natural and blessed fruit of their union – that is, a child – then it is clear that their primary purpose in marrying is to have legalized fornication. This is a very serious problem today, possibly the most serious and the most difficult a priest has to deal with when counseling a young couple.
I’ve used the term “artificial” birth control because I want to point out that the Church does permit the use of certain natural methods for avoiding conception, but these methods may not be used without the knowledge and blessing of the priest, and only if the physical and moral well-being of the family demands it. These methods are acceptable to the Church under the right circumstances and can be used by a couple without burdening their consciences, because they are “ascetical” methods; that is, they have to do with self-denial, self-control. Those methods are three:
1. Total abstinence. In very pious families this is not at all as uncommon, either today or yesterday, as one might think. It often happens that after an Orthodox husband and wife have brought a number of children into this world, they agree to abstain from one another, both for spiritual and worldly reasons, living the rest of their lives in peace and harmony as brother and sister. This has happened in the lives of saints – most notably in the life of St. John of Kronstadt. As a Church which very much cherishes and protects monastic life, we Orthodox have no fear of celibacy, and no silly ideas about how we will not be fulfilled or happy if we cease to have sexual activity with our spouse.
2. A limitation on sexual relations. This of course already happens with the Orthodox couple that sincerely tries to observe fully all of the fast days and fasting periods of the year.
3. Finally, the Church allows the use of the so-called “rhythm” method, about which ample information is available today.
In former times, when poor parents knew nothing about contraception, they relied exclusively on God’s will – and this should in fact be an example for us today. Children were born and they accepted the last one just as they had the first, saying: “God gave the child; He will also give what we need for the child.” Such was their faith, and it often happened that the last child proved to be the greatest blessing of all.
Now, what about the size of a family? Well, one thing that has a tremendous effect on how we view this is the fact that over the last one hundred years we have changed from a mostly agrarian or agricultural society to a mostly urban and industrial society. This means that whereas in previous times large families were actually needed in order to run the farm or ranch – and there was always enough food and work to go around – today we have the opposite problem, and it is some-times very difficult to support a very large family, although there are people who manage to do it. From a strictly spiritual point of view, one should try to have a large family so that the family will be strong and durable and full of love, with all of its members bearing the burdens of life together. A large family accustoms children to being concerned about others, makes them more sensitive, etc. And while a small family might be able to provide more of this world’s goods for each child, a small family does not at all guarantee a good upbringing. Single children are sometimes the most difficult of all, for they often grow up spoiled and self-centered. No general rule can be given about this, but we should be prepared and expect to have as many children as God will send and the moral and physical health of the mother and the family as a whole will allow, always staying in close touch with one’s priest on these matters.
We must be careful, however, not to overemphasize this whole business of having children, having a certain number, etc. St. John Chrysostome says: “Giving birth to children is a matter of nature. Far more important is the parents’ task of educating their children’s hearts in virtue and piety.” Indeed, this puts the emphasis back where it belongs, rather than on negative things about birth control and family size. For what the Church wants us to understand and remember is that the children we bring into the world do not belong to us; they belong to God. We did not give them life; rather, God, using us as His instruments, called them into existence. In a certain way, we parents are really only babysitters for God’s children. And so our greatest responsibility as parents is to bring up our children “in the Lord,” so that they come to know, love, and serve their Heavenly Father.
Eternal salvation is the whole goal of our earthly life. It is a goal that requires a constant striving, for it is not easy to be a Christian. The influence of our society makes it extremely hard. The parish church and the home are the only bastions where God can be praised in spirit and in truth.
Our lives, our marriages, and our homes will remain as inferior, poor wine, however, like the wine that was served first at the wedding feast at Cana, if we do not actively seek to be mature men and women, mature husbands and wives, and mature Orthodox Christians, willing to accept the responsibilities of the position in life to which we have been called. And it is only after we work hard at preparing ourselves as individuals, and our families and homes in order to receive Christ, that our lives, our marriages, and our homes will become like the good wine which Christ miraculously made from water at that joyous wedding. Amen.
(Reprinted from “Orthodox America,” No. 154)
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
On October 9th (September 26th by the old calendar) the Church commemorates the holy hieromartyr Antipas.
The holy hieromartyr Antipas, a disciple of the holy apostle John the Theologian, was bishop of the Church of Pergamos in the reign of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), at whose command all those who did not make sacrifices to the idols were either executed or exiled. Thus it was that the holy apostle John the Theologian was banished to the isle of Patmos (in the Aegean), where the Lord revealed to him the future fate of the world and the Holy Church.
The death of St. Antipas is described thus: “And to the Angel of the Church in Pergamos write: these things saith He which hath the sharp sword with two edges: I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is; and thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith, even those days wherein Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth” (Revelation 2:12-13). By his own example, by his firm faith, and his indefatigable preaching of Christ, St Antipas succeeded in encouraging the inhabitants of Pergamos to shun making sacrifices to idols. The pagan priests rebuked the bishop for luring the people away from the worship of their native gods, and demanded that he cease his preaching of Christ. St. Antipas calmly replied that he would not serve the demons, that he worshipped and would continue to worship God the Almighty, Who had created everything, and His Only-begotten and One-in-essence Son, and the Holy Spirit. The pagan priests argued that their gods had already been in existence since ancient times, while Christ had appeared only recently and was crucified under Pilate as a criminal. The holy bishop replied that the pagan gods had been made by human hands, and that all the tales of them were filled with iniquities and vices. He firmly confessed his faith in the Son of God Who had become incarnate of the Most-holy Virgin. Then the holy hieromartyr Antipas was dragged to the temple of Artemis and thrown into the glowing copper bull that served as a receptacle for sacrifices. Holy hieromartyr Antipas loudly prayed to God, asking Him to receive his soul and fortify the faith of the Christians. He then peacefully reposed in God, as though falling asleep. During the night the Christians took out the body of the holy hieromartyr, untouched by fire, and buried him with honor in Pergamos. His bier became the source of many miracles and healings from various illnesses. St. Antipas is especially prayed to in the case of severe toothaches.
BIBLICAL ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST PEOPLE
(see beginning here)
“When men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, then the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and they took them wives of all which they chose” (Genesis 6:1-2).
From ancient times these lines in the Holy Bible seemed puzzling: who were these “sons of God” who took for themselves the daughters of men? In pre-Christian times the Jewish scribes often interpreted these lines of the Holy Scripture as a joining of angels with women. However, such an idea obviously does not accord at all with our Orthodox teaching on the angels as being bodiless spirits, nor does it accord with the extremely important truth of our belief in the unique provenance of mankind from Adam and Eve. At a time when ancient pagan traditions often ascribed divine or semi-divine origin to their kings and heroes, the Holy Scripture has always categorically insisted on the sole provenance of all people from common forebears. For this reason the earliest Fathers of our Church did not accept the rabbinic interpretation of these lines, but taught that the term “sons of God” referred to the righteous part of mankind.
In truth, already in the Old Testament the righteous ones were referred to as sons of God. And the Lord Himself says: “But they which shall be accounted worthy to reach that world… are equal unto the angels and are the children of God” (Luke 20:35-36).
St. John the Theologian attests: “The Father gave us love, in order for us to be named and be the children of God.” St. John Chrysostome teaches: “Each time we do good, we are born of God, because His seed remains in us.” And St. Basil the Great writes: “Many in the Scriptures are called sons of God, as was written: “I have borne sons and have elevated them.”
Thus, in full accord with the testimony of the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Lord Himself and of the Holy Fathers, we understand the first lines of the 6th chapter of Genesis as being an account of how righteous people looked upon the daughters of unrighteous ones and were tempted by them.
And recalling that at that time there were two major branches of mankind – the descendants of Cain, the first murderer, and the descendants of the righteous Seth, who were always calling upon the name of the Lord, – we will easily understand what is being said: the descendants of the righteous Seth began to be attracted to women from among the descendants of the immoral Cain and became depraved as a result.
Why does the Holy Bible still call those people “sons of God,” despite their corruption? The descendants of Seth were sons of God not because they were righteous themselves, but primarily because after the passing of many centuries through them would be given to the world the incorrupt light of the Law of God, and the sole supreme Son of God – the Lord Christ – would appear to mankind.
And the Lord said: “My Spirit shall not always remain among these men, for they are also flesh.”
We may imagine the state of antediluvian mankind rather well by analogy with contemporary mankind, because in our times we basically see the same thing: people are becoming flesh, they are interested only in worldly, material things, spiritual gifts are dying out in them, even their souls are becoming blunted, and since all things of the flesh are powerless in themselves, the driving force within this flesh-bound mankind becomes the unimpeded action of the spiritual power of evil.
“And God saw that the wickedness of men was great on the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts was continually only evil.”
Just as He previously did with the angels, so the Lord created man in order for man to attain blissful eternal life, as we have already said: “Being All-Blissful and All-Joyous Himself, He wished other creations to have this same joyous life, joyous existence.”
Mankind sinned and thus violated God’s plan for it: instead of an immortal and blissful life, through sin it acquired a sorrowful and mortal life. But this situation for mankind is only temporary, not hopeless. Adam and Eve repented. Seth was righteous. Enos’s generation called upon the name of the Lord. Enoch pleased the Lord to the highest degree. Within mankind, within its spiritual depths there continued to occur the most precious process of spiritual maturation, which brought ever nearer the moment when it would become possible for the Son of God – the Saviour – to come down to mankind, become joined with men, and once again make them the inheritors of God’s Kingdom.
This process went on in the best and most righteous parts of the righteous branch of mankind. For the Lord, for His loving and salvific purposes, this process was very precious. But even for the sake of it He did not take away from men their free will. The process of spiritual maturation continued within mankind as long as men went along with it of their own free will.
But in the antediluvian epoch this process within mankind stopped. The sons of God, the relatively righteous descendants of the righteous Seth, Enos, and Enoch saw the seductive daughters of men from the cruel and depraved branch of mankind, from the descendants of Cain, and were tempted by them.
The process of the spiritual maturation of the human spirit ceased. Men became flesh, only flesh, without any spiritual movement whatsoever, and evil entered within them unimpeded, and all their thoughts and all their desires became continually evil.
But if this process of spiritual maturation in human souls stops completely, then the existence of mankind becomes meaningless. In truth, for a soul-bearing creation to be born into the world in order to experience some pleasant physical sensations for a certain number of years, and then to die and descend into hell without any hope to ever be free from agony and torture – what can be more horrid and senseless than such a prospect? What can be further away from God’s plan for man as a co-inheritor of God’s Kingdom, summoned to eternal joy and eternal bliss?
Antediluvian mankind reached the edge of such an immeasurable distortion of God’s plan for itself. Having become only flesh, it shut itself off from the possibility of spiritual perfection, instead of which there began a great corruption.
The Lord reduced the years of man’s lifetime: “Yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years,” in order to try to make men come to their senses by making their hour of death be so much nearer. But this did not help. The wickedness continued.
(Note: According to modern biologists, taking into account the slowness of man’s growth and maturation, his life should have been of much greater duration, if not to the length of the antediluvian patriarchs’ lives, then at least to an age of 250-300 years. A certain medical journal suggested that at the dawn of its life all of mankind became infected with some kind of illness which continues in us up to now, and that this illness is the cause of the brevity of our lives. We, however, may suppose that this moment of mankind’s universal infection, so assiduously sought by the medics, was precisely the moment of the Lord’s determination concerning us: “Their days shall be one hundred and twenty years” – as the maximum time limit for our life on earth.)
Among all of mankind at that time there was one bright exception.
“But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.”
Noah had three sons – Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Upon them were centered all the hopes for the possibility of mankind’s moral development and, in consequence, the possibility of its spiritual salvation, its return to God, to eternal divine rapture.
But if Noah and his children were to be left among the depraved mankind, they would inevitably become corrupted, would become infected with the general corruption, and if not Noah himself and his children, then his children’s children would definitely yield to the general depravity, for under the influence of the sinful fall of our forebears, human nature had become easily inclined towards evil.
And then the Lord, the All-merciful and mankind-loving Lord, decides to apply an extreme measure, decides to destroy the majority of the mankind whose life had lost all meaning, in order to preserve the only human branch that had not yet lost this meaning and was capable of moral and spiritual improvement.
And the Lord said: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth.” The Lord decided to destroy mankind by means of a deluge.
And God said unto Noah: “The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”
However, in order to save Noah and his family, the Lord commands him: “Make thee an ark of gopher wood (apparently cypress)… with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it. And behold, I do bring a flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh… But with thee will I establish My covenant, and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee.”
Let us review here in greater detail the issues related to the Holy Scriptures’ account of the Deluge. This account is the one that is most frequently subjected to blasphemy and mockery on the part of the enemies of faith.
One of the primary testimonials to the indubitable veracity of this account is the exclusive universality of its tradition. The French writer and archaeologist Francois Lenormand – a far from religious scientist – attests to it very vividly: “The Deluge is not a myth, but rather historical fact, for at least three independent racial branches of the ancient civilized world have preserved a similar account of it.” (The list of ancient peoples among whom this tradition was noted in an era that preceded the appearance of Biblical accounts among them, includes the Babylonians, the Syrians, the Arabs, the Greeks, the Persians, the Hindus, the North American Indians called the Algonquians, the Aztecs, and the Polynesians.)
When did the Deluge take place?
We do not know at all. We have previously spoken of the impossibility of creating chronologies on the basis of accounts in the Book of Genesis. In any case, the Deluge goes back to an extremely distant era of human history. This is confirmed by the very extent to which accounts of it had spread.
Personally the writer of these lines believes it to have most probably occurred in the era known to the science of prehistoric archaeology as the borderline between the Mousterian and the Aurignacian eras, the borderline between the Lower Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic, when the up to then numerous race of Neanderthal man, – some of whose characteristics (total absence of burials, which consequently suggested a total lack of belief in the afterlife, and a complete absence of pictorial designs, i.e. contempt for the sense of beauty, etc.) accorded with the basic traits of the negative branch of antediluvian mankind: “My spirit shall not inhabit among these men, for they are flesh,” i.e. without any signs of spiritual life, – unexpectedly disappeared from the face of the earth.
The account of the Deluge, important for all times and for all people, is especially important for our times, because to them apply Christ’s words on this subject: “And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man: they did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:26-27).
We have already spoken of the fact that the Universal Deluge, which destroyed the ancient mankind that had fallen into corruption, despite the seeming cruelty of such a measure was actually a manifestation of God’s concern for mankind. In order to save the last branch of mankind capable of spiritual renaissance and perfection, so that some day, even in the most distant future, it could become capable of once again inheriting paradisiacal life, – in order to save this branch it was necessary to destroy the remaining depraved mankind, so that it would not be able to infect this last sound branch with its spiritual illness.
But having destroyed with the waters of the Deluge this hopelessly corrupt majority of mankind, did God forget it, did He disdain until the very end this multimillion, perhaps multibillion multitude of human beings, who had been created by Him for the eternal bliss of paradisiacal life, but who had forgotten Him and had disdained His commandments?
For us, for our generations, the eternal fate of the antediluvian mankind may be especially important and interesting. Earlier we had already pointed out the fact that there are many similar traits between modern mankind and that ancient antediluvian one.
And we can attest with great joy that the Merciful Lord did not forget His lost children who had forgotten Him. When the appearance of the Son of God in the world and His redemption of mankind took place, – which, let us remember, was ensured by the safeguarding of Noah and his family from corruption, – then the Lord, as the holy Apostle Peter attests, stretched out His saving hand in hell to these human souls who had perished in the Deluge.
“Christ… also went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient to the longsuffering of God that waited for them in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared (1 Peter 3:19-20).
In interpreting these words, Blessed Theophylact says that this refers to the entire antediluvian mankind from the time of Adam, but primarily to the generation that was washed away by the waters of the Deluge.
At the same time, St. Gregory the Theologian reminds us that “Christ, appearing to those who were in hell, did not save everyone indiscriminately, but only the ones who came to believe in Him.” And although the great mystery of who is saved in eternity and who perishes is concealed from us, we may, however, hopefully suppose that a great multitude of those unfortunate souls who had perished in the Deluge for having forgotten God and become flesh, after tasting the torment of hell, took advantage of Christ’s glad tidings to believe in Him and follow Him into His kingdom of eternal joy, His kingdom of love, just as did a great many other Old Testament souls. But, of course, this did not apply to Cain, who had become steeped in evil, or Lamech, who surpassed him in cruelty.
(To be continued)
Archbishop Nathaniel (Lvov)
YOU NEVER KNOW
You never know when someone
Might catch a dream from you,
Or something you say may open windows
Of a mind that seeks the light.
The way you live may not matter at all,
But you never know, it might.
And just in case it could be
That another’s life, through you,
Might possibly change for the better,
With better and brighter view,
It seems it might be worth a try
At pointing the way to the right;
Of course, it may not matter at all,
But then again, it might.
– Keith Bennett