HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY OF THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY
Today’s Gospel reading, dear brethren, tells us of how Philip, who was one of Christ’s disciples, brought his friend Nathaniel to Christ. Along the way Nathaniel expressed his doubts to Philip as to whether Christ was truly the Messiah, but after meeting Christ and talking with Him, all of Nathaniel’s doubts evaporated. The Lord touched upon the deepest strings of Nathaniel’s heart, touched upon his innermost thoughts and desires, thus showing His divine omniscience; and so Nathaniel proclaimed Christ to be the Son of God and became one of His twelve closest disciples.
But why do we hear this Gospel reading about Christ’s conversation with Nathaniel on this particular Sunday, the first Sunday of Great Lent, which celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy? It is because the Lord’s words to Nathaniel clearly describe the character of a true Orthodox Christian and, by extension, the character of the true Orthodox Church.
Here is truly an Israelite, – said the Lord of Nathaniel, – in whom there is no guile; i.e. here is a man who thinks, reasons, believes, hopes, talks, and acts rightly and directly, – since Nathaniel came to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God straightaway, and afterwards his faith never wavered. Such must a true Christian be, dear brethren, and such must be – and is – the Orthodox Church, i.e. a Church in which there is no guile, no vain human invention, which is genuine in its teaching, its sacraments, its divine services, in all of its establishment. Truly such is our Orthodox Church, which has remained unchanged from the times of the apostles and which has been attested to by a multitude of saints and miracles.
The blood of many martyrs has been shed for the purity of our faith and our Church; there have been many heroic struggles with the enemies of truth – pagans, Moslems, false Christians. Great has been the suffering of venerable fathers and hierarchs, and other defenders of the faith. It is this which constitutes today’s commemoration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, – that from the holy Apostles to our days, and despite all the efforts of the servants of hell and despite the magnificent deceit of contemporary false Orthodoxy, the Orthodox faith has been preserved in all its truth and purity. The genuineness of our faith is further confirmed by the fact that so many different kinds of people lived by it and achieved salvation through it: noble kings, and wise philosophers, and great scientists, aristocrats and commoners, the rich and the poor, men, women, and children. The Orthodox faith brings people to a state of moral perfection and holiness, and only a perfect faith, with all its divine powers, can bring others to perfection.
Yes, dear brethren, only the Orthodox faith purifies and sanctifies the human nature which is defiled by sin; renews this imperfect nature by means of the sacraments of baptism, penitence, and communion; fills with love those who are quarreling; fills with hope those who are in despair; comforts those who are depressed; makes kind those who are crafty; reforms those who are corrupt; makes the greedy – abstemious; makes the cruel – charitable; adulterers makes chaste; egoists makes selfless; misers makes generous; madmen makes wise, and even the demonic makes godlike. Such are the miracles which the Orthodox faith works in men!
But why does it not produce such a spiritual transformation in us, dear brethren? Because we lack faith, because we are frivolous at heart, because we have distanced ourselves from the Church, we do not live the life of the Church, we do not live in accordance with its spirit, for us Orthodoxy is just a formality.
In order for us to be true Orthodox Christians, we must first of all have constant live contact with the Orthodox Church, we must take part in its prayers and sacraments, we must live in the spirit of our faith, follow its rules and commandments, and – most importantly – through genuine and profound repentance we must become as Christian as were all the saints, we must follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, so that the Lord would say about us, as He once said about Nathaniel: here are truly Christians in whom there is no guile. Amen.
THE SONG OF THE ARCHANGEL
“The song of the Archangel sing we unto Thee, O Pure One: Hail, Thou that art full of grace, the Lord is with Thee!”
During the days of the Great Lent the holy Church gathers us together for one of its greatest feasts – the Annunciation of the Holy Theotokos. The Church directs our minds towards those sacred moments when God’s messenger – Archangel Gabriel – announced to the humble Maiden from Nazareth the mystery of God’s incarnation.
“Hail, Thou that art full of grace, the Lord is with Thee!” – greeted the heavenly denizen the One Who was to become the Mother of the pre-eternal God. Now we are on the threshold of the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy: Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” Now God is taking up dwelling in the womb of the Virgin, in order to save the world from perdition.
The human mind remains silent before the mystery of the appearance of the pre-eternal God from the Virgin Mother.
It is impossible to comprehend it, it is impossible even to search for such comprehension among our usual concepts. One can only believe in it, one can only purify one’s heart, in order to have it enlightened by the Archangel’s song.Faith knows no bounds. It leads us directly to the throne of God. Along this path God’s Visage is revealed to us and illuminates us. And the main spiritual weakness of our days, brethren, is that we have lost the simplicity of a child’s faith – that faith which can do the impossible.
Our age is an age of little faith, an age of weak and frail faith. And it is precisely on this day of the Annunciation, when the impossible has become possible, and the unrealizable, from the human point of view, has become realized in actual life, that the holy Church appeals to our faith, to that small flame which burns in the heart of each one of us, preserving us from spiritual disintegration and corruption. It calls us onto the path of faithfulness to God, onto the path of submission to His benevolent will.
Have faith in God! Come to the realization and the feeling that nothing is impossible for the believer, that wherever God wills, the order of nature is overcome, since He does what He wills…
Let us try, brethren, to gaze with eyes of faith upon the mystery of God’s appearance in the flesh, and let us continuously pray for the Lord to strengthen our frail faith and to enlighten the eyes of our heart. And above all let us call upon the aid of the Queen of Heaven, for according to St. Seraphim, “it is impossible for the devil to destroy a man, lest that man himself ceases to appeal for aid to the Mother of God.”
O Holy Theotokos, save us!
Hieromonk Methody, “Before the eyes of God’s truth”)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia, No. 15, 2007)
CHRIST ON TRIAL BEFORE PILATE
The entire life of our Lord Jesus Christ was a single continuous labor of self-abasement and suffering, a labor of patient endurance of all kinds of tribulations and sorrows. From the beginning of His days He appeared in deepest humility – born of a poor and unknown Mother and, moreover, born in a cave and laid in a manger. Soon afterwards, made known to the world by a celestial sign (the star), He was immediately subjected to persecution: King Herod sought the Child’s soul, and He, like any mortal, was forced to seek refuge from the murderer’s hand and flee to a foreign land. After His return from there, He settled down in the most insignificant town of Nazareth and continued to live in total anonymity, obedient to His supposed carpenter father, sharing the latter’s labor and poverty. The land of Galilee in which our Lord lived was filled with pagans, people who did not know God; and here, living among sinners, He constantly sorrowed over their sins and the sins of the whole world. Afterwards, when He reached the age of 30, He went together with all the sinners to John the Baptist in the wilderness, to be baptized by him. Even here the Lord showed such incredible depth of humility! Then the Creator of the world and all creatures stayed in the wilderness with the animals, and here the Master of all experienced hunger, and thirst, and was like a nobody; for 40 days He remained without food, suffering cold and hunger under the open sky. Then He was tempted by the devil, who even demanded worship from the One Who was hymned by the angels. How could the Creator, Who abundantly provides us with all delights, endure all this, and endure such humiliation from His adversary!
But there was something even more grievous than that! Now the Saviour appears before the world, brings glad tidings of great joy, – and what happens? – all the elite of this world rises up against Him and opposes Him: the scribes, the Pharisees, the Jewish priests and high priests – all turned against Him, all sought to trip Him up, if not in deed, then in word. He summons all the sons of Israel to Him, treats them as a friend, as a brother, while the wicked people do not believe Him and try to destroy Him. Especially the proud Pharisees were against Him, those hypocritical people who always tried to appear better than they were. More than any others they hated Him and made attempts upon His life; and they always treated Him with humiliation, disdain, and mockery. They considered His teaching to be flattery and deceit, His deeds to be unlawful, His miracles they attributed to the power of the demonic prince, and they even openly accused Him of being possessed. They contemptuously called Him a carpenter’s son, a Samaritan, a friend of publicans and sinners, and everywhere they persecuted Him as a great criminal and transgressor of the law of Moses. Many times they made attempts upon His life: one time they wanted to push Him off a high cliff into the abyss, many times they tried to stone Him or sent their servants to seize and bind Him. All in all, from His very birth and to the end of His life, Jesus Christ suffered, was subjected to all manner of insults, and suffered grief from all sides. Even within the circle of His closest disciples He saw and continuously suffered the presence of His future betrayer.
But the time came when He was due to manifest the greatest miracle of His Divine life, to wit: to give Himself up to death for the salvation of mankind. The merciful God had already promised the first man to send a Saviour Who would take upon Himself the sins of the world, and for that He would be stung in the heel by the serpent, i.e. He would suffer death in His flesh; however, He Himself would smite the serpent’s head, which had enticed people to sin and death, i.e. He would vanquish the devil and destroy among men the sin and death that had come through the devil. By God’s command the prophets often repeated this promise of God and revealed the mystery of it to the chosen people. Jesus Christ Himself said many times that He was to suffer and die for mankind, and that in Him would be fulfilled all that the prophets had foretold about the promised Saviour of the world.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa says: “What great deprivation – for God to be in the form of a slave! What great humility – for the King of creation to commune with our human nature! The King of kings and the Lord of lords has willingly attired Himself in the form of a slave; the Judge of the universe becomes the hostage of His underlings; the Lord of creation resides in a cave… The Most-pure and Most-whole takes upon Himself the iniquity of human nature, takes on the burden of all our poverty, proceeds even to the point of death. Do you see the measure of willingly-accepted abasement? Life tastes death; the Judge is brought to trial; the Lord of all creation is subjected to a judge’s verdict; the King of all the heavenly hosts does not turn away from Himself the hands of the executors of punishment.”
This is what our salvation cost the Lord our Saviour! These grief and constant sorrows are the price that He paid for our deliverance from sin and eternal torment! But how our Lord suffered in the last night before His death on the cross, what terrible torments of the soul He experienced during that time, – not a single tongue can say, nor a single mind imagine. However, His beloved disciples heard a little about it, and they have passed their knowledge on to us.
Our Lord’s anguish in the garden of Gethsemane
And now came the hour which had been determined at God’s pre-eternal council, the hour of which the Son of God, pondering it several days before, had said: “Now is My soul troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour! But for this cause came I unto this hour” (John 12:27). And thus, when the hour came, the anguish of His soul increased greatly. At the end of the Mystic Supper and the farewell talk with His disciples, the Lord, going out of Jerusalem, was accompanied by them to the Mount of Olives. At that time the mount was covered by olive trees. Crossing the brook of Cedron that ran dark and turbid near the walls of Jerusalem, and ascending to the village of Gethsemane, the Lord said to His disciples: “Wait here, while I go and pray there.” To the right of the village a garden was spread alongside the brook, into which the Lord often went with His disciples, and now, too, He went into this garden, taking with Him only Peter, James, and John, who had seen His glory on Mount Tabor. And here He began to be grief-stricken, afeared, and anguished, saying: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. Tarry ye here and watch with Me; pray, that ye enter not into temptation.” And going somewhat apart from them and kneeling, He fell upon His face and prayed that, if possible, this hour pass Him by.
In order for us not to be idle spectators of our Saviour’s anguish, let us first look at the reason why He began to sorrow so greatly and feel fear and anguish. So why was there such great sorrow in the One Who was truly the Christ, Son of the living God, of Whom we heard the angel’s tidings: He shall save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21)? But how would He save them? No one knew until the actual hour of salvation came. And in what exactly does our salvation lie? Simply in the forgiveness of our sins? But how would this satisfy God’s truth, which condemns for transgression of the law? No, Christ obviously did not come down to earth only to preach His Divine teaching. Any other divinely-inspired man could have been sent to do this, such as Moses or the other prophets, gifted by God with power to work miracles in confirmation of their words. Divine truth apparently does not wish to simply forgive sins, but wishes to expiate them with the death of the One Whom the Baptist pointed out and said: Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world. Only with such an understanding can we comprehend the Lord’s words: for this cause came I unto this hour.
Only the one who attains such an understanding of God’s truth can then be a worthy contemplator of the Saviour’s suffering in the garden of Gethsemane. He can then understand why our Lord began to sorrow in anguish when the hour came for Him to leave this world and return to His Father. But if anyone should further ask: for what cause? “The punishment of the world was upon Him,” informs us the prophet Isaiah, “He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4). Erstwhile Adam led a blissful life in the garden that had been planted in the East; everything was good for him there among the trees of paradise, yet he deemed it not enough to know only good, but wished to become a connoisseur of good and evil, – though God had forbidden him to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Expelled for that cause from paradise, he also precipitated us, his descendants, into an abyss of sin and death. For this reason the Father of the future age, Who came into this vale of tears not to seek any benefits for Himself, but to give up His soul for the deliverance of many, had to suffer all the horrors and grief that come from sin and death. One of Adams descendants had cried out prophetically: “Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me” (Psalm 55:5). The same feelings must have overwhelmed the One Who not only in word, but in deed took upon Himself the sins of mankind and for that became the object of heavenly wrath. This is why the Saviour of the world sorrowed, and sorrowed unto death, suffered so inexpressibly, was afeared and anguished! The following prophetic words applied to Him in all their power: “The afflictions of hell hath overwhelmed me; I have met with sorrow and torment.” And He could say quite justifiably to the righteous God: “Thy arrows have pierced Me, and My heart hath dried out like grass; My insides have become filled with fire, My soul is afflicted greatly, and I have languished.” But what are the sufferings of the body in comparison with the suffering of the soul! They are like drops in an ocean. It was in this manner that the beloved Son of God suffered in His soul. And He suffered as someone without sins Himself, only for our sins.
O, let us thank the merciful God, Who so loved the world that He gave up His Only-begotten Son for us, that through His suffering we might be delivered from eternal torment. For no one except Him could have satisfied God’s righteous truth, and such had been our downfall, that for our deliverance from sin and eternal torment our God incarnate Himself had to suffer the afflictions of hell, – not with His Divinity of course, but with His body and soul. Let us also know that these greatest sorrows, fear, and mortal anguish of the soul, that are rightfully called the afflictions of hell, are above all comprehension and imagination. The soul quickly languishes from them, and not a single person would agree to suffer them for even the briefest moment. It is for this reason that the Saviour of the world, as a true man, cried out in great anguish: “O My Father! If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” Show Thy fatherly mercy upon Me, free Me from this suffering, for bitter is the torment prepared for sinners. However, do Thou with Me as thou wilt.
While our Lord suffered unbearably, His disciples were asleep; this shows that the Lord’s prayer, though not verbose, was of some duration. The disciples, however, were unable to share their Teacher’s spiritual anguish: the festive paschal evening, the lengthy talk, the nighttime travel, – all dis-posed them towards sleep. Although the Lord had said to them: “watch with Me,” their spiritual dejection and not knowing all that was due to happen to their Teacher forced them to not so much disobey His word as to submit to their body’s frailty. Of course they would not have acted thus had they known that this evening was the last in their Teacher’s life, the last evening He was spending with them; but they did not know that. And so the Lord came up to them and said to Peter: “Simon! Are you sleeping? Could you not watch a single hour?” The very sound of these words already let Peter know that his Teacher’s heart was rent with sorrow. Then, turning to the others, the Lord said: “Why do ye sleep? Could ye not watch with Me one hour? But watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” With these last words He indicated to them that they, who just an hour ago had promised to give up their life for Him, could not even overcome their bodies’ weakness now.
Saying that, the Lord stepped away from them further into the garden and once again, falling upon His face, cried out: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me! O My Father! All is possible for Thee; let this cup pass from Me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt; not my will, but Thy will be done.” After praying thus a second time the Lord, still hoping to find support for His soul, so-to-speak, in the prayer of His disciples, approached them once again. Persuaded to prayer the first time, the disciples had actually begun this holy task; however, not feeling any special need for it and seeing by the light of the moon that their Teacher was praying and that neither He, nor they were in any danger, they did not wish to exert themselves needlessly, and so they fell asleep once more. But their sleep was fitful, and at their Teacher’s approach they immediately raised their heads; however, it was enough just to look at them to be convinced that they were incapable of prayer, for their eyes were heavy, and they did not know what to say in reply to their Lord Who had several times already exhorted them to pray. Thus came to pass the words of King David: “I looked for some to take pity, but there were none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20). From the very beginning there was no one to share with the Saviour of the world the cup of His suffering: He alone had to press the grapes of God’s wrath, as notes the Prophet Isaiah.
There are times that are very difficult to bear even for plain sinners. How terrible were now the hours for the One Who was suffering for the sins of all sinners, beginning with Adam and all to way to those who will be living in the end times! He was now as a rejected sinner in the eyes of His Father, and He suffered so unbearably that a great change appeared in His face: bitter tears flowed from His eyes, while His face became covered with bloody sweat. And, struggling thus, He prayed even more fervently; and His sweat was like great drops of blood falling down to the ground, – so attest the Scriptures. All His emotional and physical powers were becoming exhausted, and His life seemed to be seeping out of Him; then an Angel from heaven appeared to Him and fortified Him. Fortified how and with what? Although the apostles, who saw the appearance of the Angel, do not speak of this, but since it is known that the Lord was undergoing emotional suffering, it may be assumed that the Angel comforted His soul with God’s words.
And so it was that the One Who with a single word called forth the dead from their tombs, Who healed all illness in people, but Who for the sake of our sins suffered the utmost exhaustion of life’s forces, now arose from the ground, fortified by the heavenly messenger, and looking upward into heaven said: “O My Father! If this cup may not pass away from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done!” Thus let us look at the Son of God’s utter obedience, at the great humility of His soul; for there is no conceit in it, no fainthearted rejection, nor any protest at His forthcoming fate. At first the frailty of human nature speaks in Him: may the cup of these greatest sufferings pass from Me; but His soul’s submission repeats over and over again: not My will, but Thy will be done. The desire within Jesus’ soul is holy even in its utter exhaustion! Truly the majesty of His spirit shines within Him in all its splendor.
Gazing upon the tears and being pierced by the cries of the Divine Sufferer Who has replaced us before the tribunal of God’s truth, which one of us does not notice how much effort and suffering it cost Him to deliver us from eternal torment! Thus we see the cup full of bitter sorrow, we see both the emotional and the spiritual exhaustion, the falling to the ground, the bloody sweat, we hear the agony, – and all this because of whom and for whose sake? – because of us and for the sake of us, unworthy ones! O let us fall down before our Lord, brethren, and let us cry and weep before Him for having subjected Him to such agony through our sins! Let us know at what price we have been redeemed from eternal torment! Let us also realize that had He not revealed His spiritual agony in this hour, we would not have known how costly was our salvation for our Saviour, we would not have been able to properly value the majesty of His goodness. We could have thought that His Divinity made all these suffering totally insignificant for Him, but now – O, how we must venerate our Saviour, Who had not refused to drink such a bitter cup of suffering for us!
Then, knowing as omniscient God that the hour had come in which He was to be given into the hands of sinners, the Saviour came up to His disciples and said: “ye are still sleeping and resting! Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray Me.” At that moment one of His twelve disciples appeared in the garden at the head of a crowd of people with lanterns and lights. This was Judas the betrayer.
The garden of Gethsemane, in which the Saviour of the world was to be found now, was one of His favorite places for visiting and nightly prayers. Whenever He stayed in Jerusalem, He usually went into the mountains for the night, particularly to the Mount of Olives, and there in the garden near the brook of Cedron He spent the nights with His disciples. So it was now, with the only difference being that one of the disciples remained in the city that evening, planning to commit a great villainy, which later became known to the whole world. Being well-acquainted with the place where the Lord often went with his disciples, Judas Iscariot, by agreement with the members of the Sanhedrin, took a detachment of soldiers and a multitude of servants belonging to the Jewish chief priests, scribes, and elders, and led them directly to the garden where his Teacher was praying. And at the moment when the Lord was rousing His disciples and saying: arise, let us be going… Judas entered the garden, followed by a multitude of people, all with weapons in their hands, with swords and staves. The iniquitous Judas was still trying to conceal his villainy from his Teacher, and in order to give the soldiers a sign as to whom they should seize, he told them in advance: to Whom I give a kiss, He is the one; take Him and lead Him quietly, so that He would not be able to somehow escape. And now with quick steps he approached his Teacher, Who was standing and awaiting his arrival. Let us also pause at the sight of this strange man, this disciple-betrayer, of whom the Lord often said to His disciples: did I not choose you, and yet one of you is the devil. Within the small community of Christ’s disciples Judas occupied the position of treasurer. He was a man of intelligence, but one who was devoted exclusively to material advantages; he was pious in appearance, but was convinced that piety was also to be used for gain. With such a disposition, he wished to become one of Christ’s disciples also for the sake of worldly benefits. He thought that being a disciple of the One Who, in the opinion of all the Jews, was due to reign over all nations, he too would attain honors, power, glory, and wealth. However, when he saw and over the course of three years became totally convinced that being the follower of a Man Who loved poverty and brought solace to beggars did not promise him fulfillment of his heart’s desires, he turned around completely, n order to gain at least some profit for his three years of service in Christ’s company. This is why his mind became clouded, and like a thief – for earlier he also kept back for himself part of what was given out to the poor – he used the cover of night to effect this deed, which earned him only a beggarly thirty pieces of silver and then led him to his end as a thief, traitor, and seller of Christ.
When this villain approached the One Whom the Pharisees had hatefully labeled as a friend of sinners and Who truly was such, trying to save them, the merciful Teacher asked him: “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” Although the Omniscient One knew the reason for His betrayer’s arrival, He intentionally asked him so kindly, – perhaps such friendly words would still echo in the miserable man’s soul? “Rabbi” (Teacher)… the word trembled and died on Judas’s lips. “Hail, Master!” – then said the hypocrite in a trembling voice and kissed Him. O, infamous one! He greets Him as a friend and with the same kiss gives a sign whom to seize. Yet the merciful Lord only said to him: “Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?” But the insensate one then silently went back to the crowd of Christ’s enemies.
(To be continued)
One’s own cross and the cross of Christ
The Lord said to His disciples: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me (Matt. 16:24).
What does “his cross” mean? Why is this cross – his own, i.e. the separate and individual cross of each person, – also called the Cross of Christ? One’s own cross: the sorrows and suffering of earthly life, which are individual to each person. One’s own cross: fasting, vigil, and other pious spiritual labors through which the flesh is humbled and subjugated to the spirit. These labors should be appropriate to each person’s strength, and they are individual to each person. One’s own cross: illnesses and passions, which are individual to each person. With some of them we are born, with others we become contaminated along the path of life. The Cross of Christ is represented by Christ’s teaching. One’s own cross, no matter how heavy, is fruitless and in vain if it is not transformed into the Cross of Christ by following Christ. For Christ’s disciple his own cross becomes the Cross of Christ, because Christ’s disciple is firmly convinced that Christ watches over him ceaselessly, that Christ allots him the sorrows as a necessary and inevitable condition of Christianity, that not a single sorrow could come near him were it not allowed by Christ, that through sorrows a Christian becomes united with Christ, becomes a participant in His lot on earth and, therefore, in heaven.
For Christ’s disciple his own cross becomes the Cross of Christ when Christ’s disciple regards the fulfillment of Christ’s commandments as his sole purpose in life. These most holy commandments become for him a cross on which he ceaselessly crucifies the flesh with its passions and lusts (Gal 5:24).
Thus it is obvious why, in order to take on one’s cross, one must first deny oneself. This is because sin has become such a strong and widespread part of our fallen nature. Thus, in order to take one’s cross upon one’s shoulders, it is first necessary to deny the body its lustful desires and provide it only with what is essential for existence; it is necessary to regard one’s own self-justification as a lie before God and one’s own reason as foolishness; and finally, by engaging in a continuous study of the Gospel, it is necessary to fully reject one’s own will.
Only a person who has achieved such complete self-denial is capable of taking on his own cross. With obedience to God, calling upon God’s help to strengthen his frailty, such a person looks upon approaching sorrow without fear or agitation, is prepared to suffer it magnanimously and courageously, hoping that it will make him a participant in Christ’s suffering, and will confess Christ not only with his mind and heart, but also with his very deeds, his very life.
A cross is burdensome only while it remains one’s own. As soon as it is trans-formed into the Cross of Christ, it attains incredible lightness: for My yoke is easy and My burden is light, said the Lord.
The cross is placed upon the shoulders of Christ’s disciple when the disciple acknowledges himself to have merited the sorrows sent to Him by Divine Providence. Christ’s disciple carries his cross properly when he acknowledges that it is precisely the sorrows that have been sent him, and none other, that are necessary to his salvation. The patient bearing of one’s cross is the fruit of genuine vision and recognition of one’s sins. The patient bearing of one’s cross is genuine repentance. By accusing our own selves we justify God’s judgment and receive remission of our sins.
O thou who art crucified on the cross! Acknowledge Christ – and the doors of Paradise will open for thee. From thy cross glorify the Lord, rejecting all thought of complaint or grumbling. From thy cross thank the Lord for such a precious gift – the opportunity to be one with Christ through thy sufferings.
The cross is a true treasure-chest of genuine theology. Outside the cross there is no living knowledge of Christ. Do not seek Christian perfection in human virtues. It is not there: it is hidden within the Cross of Christ.
One’s own cross is transformed into the Cross of Christ when Christ’s disciple bears it with a lively realization of his sinfulness, when he bears it with gratitude towards Christ, with laudation of Christ. The laudation and gratitude engender the feeling of indescribable spiritual joy within the sufferer, which encompasses his heart with grace, pours out upon his soul, pours out upon his very body.
The Cross of Christ seems severe only in outward appearance, only to mortal eyes. For Christ’s disciple it is a supreme spiritual pleasure which completely drowns out sorrow, so that among the most terrible anguish Christ’s follower feels only pleasure. Saint Maura said to her husband, Saint Timothy, who was suffering terrible torments and inviting her to take part in the martyrdom: “I dread, brother, to succumb to fear, seeing the terrible torments and the wrathful ruler, and to lose endurance because of my tender age.” The holy martyr replied to her: “Have hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, and your torments will be as fragrant oil poured upon your body, and as the breath of dew within your bones, easing all your suffering” (Lives of the Saints, May 8).
The cross is the power and the glory of all the saints.
The cross is the healer of passions and the destroyer of demons.
The cross is deadly for those who did not transform their own cross into the Cross of Christ, who grumble from their cross at Divine Providence, blaspheme against it, give themselves over to hopelessness and despair. Unrepentant sinners die an eternal death, by their lack of patience depriving themselves of true life in God.
If any man will come after Me, – said the Lord, – let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me…
AT THE TOMB OF CHRIST
Before every human tomb all worldly noise and hubbub cease. Each tomb speaks to us with its silence. Here ends all that began on earth. Here all human truth is curtailed. Here we can either weep inconsolably or seek another truth, another life…
Who among us is not familiar with these emotions? And what will we say, what will we feel as we stand at the Tomb of our Lord and Saviour?
“The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified…” Truly it is here before us – the glory of the Son of man.
Humiliated and condemned, wounded, crowned with thorns, and dressed in a crimson robe, He is now here before us already without any breath of life, already wound up in a burial shroud…
Such is His glory… The glory of love, the glory of a voluntary offering of Himself for the life and the salvation of the world.
Stand, O Christian, before this awesome and mysterious Tomb. In order to save you, in order to return you to the Father’s embrace, your Saviour Himself came down to earth and drank the bitter cup of your suffering, took upon Himself the heavy burden of your sins. Turn your heart towards your Saviour.
The days are approaching when, by the mercy of God, the joy of holy Pascha will be revealed to all of us. But is our soul ready for this joy?... Is our heart pure?...
With its silence the Tomb of Christ appeals to the conscience of each one of us, summons us to stand before God’s Judgment under the fiery penetrating eyes of God’s Truth, which had been crucified, had suffered, had been buried.
“With desire I wish to eat this Passover with you,” the Lord says to us, as He did to His disciples. But God’s Passover can be partaken only by those who are able to wholeheartedly feel the morally obligating force of Christ’s suffering and respond to it with their entire life.
(Hieromonk Methody, “Before the eyes of God’s truth”)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia, No. 15, 2007)
THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST
A historical account
There finally came that “great and blessed Saturday” – on March 18, 34 A.D. – when the Only-begotten Son of God rested from all His deeds on earth. But there was no rest in Jerusalem: some were deprived of rest by their malice, while others could not rest because of heavy and oppressive sorrow. The enemies of Jesus continued to persecute Him even unto His grave, making sure to seal His tomb and set guards around it. At the same time the Lord’s disciples suffered great sorrow: for all of them, except John the Theologian, had abandoned their Master and were now finding out from others about His last days – how He was humiliated, how He suffered terribly on the cross. Bitter tears were shed by Apostle Peter, who had renounced the One Whom he had promised to love even unto death. But far more bitter tears were shed by the Mother of God, Whose soul – in accordance with holy Simeon’s prophecy – had been sharply pierced.
Thus some gazed with anguish and others with gloating upon the silent, sealed, and guarded tomb of the Saviour. But whatever took place in the meantime behind the doors of the grave was hidden from the world. Only the most precious Body of the Lord rested there; with His glorified soul He descended into hell, into the very bastion of Satan, that ancient murderer of mankind, where from time immemorial the souls of all the forefathers and the righteous languished, deprived of the bliss of paradise by the original sin. St. John Damascene says: “The glorified soul of Christ descended into hell so that light would shine upon those living underground and in the shadow of death, just as the Sun of truth shone upon those living on earth; to both those on earth and those in hell Christ preached peace, freedom from captivity, return of sight to the blind, salvation to those who believed in Him, and He stood as the accuser of unbelievers.”
The day of Christ finally dawned for those who from faraway, separated by millennia, saw Him only in the shadow of images and prophecies. The holy men were already expecting Christ: the righteous Simeon had told them of His nativity on earth; John the Baptist had preached to them His imminent arrival. And now, bringing with Him the teaching of the Gospel and the remission of sins, the Lord Himself descends into hell. With rapture and inexpressible joy the host of fore-fathers and prophets greet Jesus Christ. St. Ephraim the Syrian thus describes this meeting: here, behind the gloomy confines of dismal hell, the Saviour “sees Adam, drowning in tears; He sees Abel, covered with blood as with a royal robe; He sees Noah, decorated with righteousness; He sees Abraham, crowned with all manner of virtue; He sees Lot, the purveyor of hospitality; He sees Job, shining with patience; he sees Moses, ordained by the hand of God. He approaches Joshua, son of Nun, and the latter is surrounded by his army; He comes up to Samuel, and the latter shines with the anointment of kings; He goes up to David, and the latter is buried with the Psalter; He approaches Elisha, and the latter is clothed in a mantle. Isaiah joyously shows his head, which had been sawed off. Jonah glories in the salvation of the people of Nineveh. The eyes of Ezekiel are shining from his awesome visions. The feet of Daniel are still fresh from the lions’ embraces. The head of the Baptist glows with its beheading. He sees also the holy women, equal in all things to the men. He sees each righteous one, looks upon each prophet, – and proclaims: “It is I!”
Hell trembled upon meeting with the second Adam. The confines of hell crumbled. The dominion of death and Satan ended. All the righteous ones who had been devoured by death were now delivered.
Meanwhile, two days had passed on earth from the moment of Jesus Christ’s death on Golgotha. A feeling of restless rage stirred in the hearts of His murderers, who remembered well His prophecy of arising on the third day; while in the hearts of Christ’s disciples there kindled a spark of vague hope that the Master’s divine power would be manifested. But stolidly, indifferent to both rage and hope, stood the guards at the tomb where the Hope of all creation was buried.
In the deep silence of early morning, amid the peace and tranquility of nature, the Son of God arose from the sealed tomb without disturbing His burial cloths. According to the testimony of His holy Shroud, Christ was resurrected by a burst of incredibly powerful energy which far exceeded the power of atomic energy. There were no witnesses to this greatest of miracles on earth, but they were not even needed: the entire subsequent history of the Church of Christ bears witness to the truth of the Resurrection.
The soldiers who guarded the tomb were eyewitnesses to the events which followed the Resurrection. Calmly they stood under the panoply of olive trees, peering attentively into the surrounding gloom of the early morning. Suddenly they felt the ground tremble and an extraordinary light glittered like lightning, cutting through the air, – this was an angel of God, coming from heaven, who approached the tomb, pushed the stone away from the entrance, and sat on the stone. The angel’s radiant appearance frightened the soldiers: in great fear they fell to the ground as dead. The earthly guard at the tomb of the resurrected Christ had ended, giving way to the heavenly guard. Christ was risen! – and the joyous morning of new life dawned for all creation.
(Adapted from the monthly readings of St. Dimitry of Rostov)
THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
The Orthodox church marriage is a great sacrament: no wonder that in our times of apostasy it has been subjected to such terrible attacks and destruction, for it is the foundation of a morally healthy society existing within the framework of God’s commandments. The Orthodox marriage and the family which issues from it have always constituted the major impediment to the corruption of mankind for the purpose of preparing it to accept the Antichrist. All of us have personally witnessed the immense efforts which have been made over the past decades – and are still being made today – to destroy marriage and the family. In order for us – Orthodox Christians – to withstand this anti-Christian campaign, we must under-stand and come to realize the great significance of true Orthodox church marriage. To this end we would first like to bring to your attention a brief exposition of the Orthodox teaching on marriage, and then an excellent article by Father Alexey Young, which illuminates the subject from all sides.
Orthodox teaching on the sacrament of marriage
The marital union has been elevated in the New Testament to the level of God’s great mystery; it is an image of the union of Christ and the Church. But the union of Christ and the Church is full of grace and truth (John 1:14), i.e. it is a true union, filled with grace; therefore, the marital union must also be considered full of grace, a union upon which God sends the grace of the Holy Spirit, and which is thus a true union. On the basis of this, the marital union is concluded not only through parental blessing or the wish of those entering the union, but with the blessing of the Church, through priests ordained within the Church, who perform a special solemn rite – the sacrament of marriage, – in order to transfer to the newly-wedded pair the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The Christian marriage is holy and spiritual, as is the union of Christ and the Church. For this reason the apostle says: “May the marriage of all be honourable and the bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4) and enjoins Christian spouses: for this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication; that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour, and not in the lust of desire, even as the pagans who know no God (Thess. 4:3-5).
Marriage should be indissoluble: what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Matt. 19:6), – willfully, of course. The only acceptable cause for divorce is adultery; but even in this case the husband and wife are not divorced except by the authority of the Church itself, through its lawful priests, i.e. by the authority which had originally united the spouses, for only to the apostles and their successors did the Saviour give the power to bind or loosen men (Matt. 18:18).
All other forms of divorce, outside of the Church, are condemned by the words: “what God joined together, let not man put asunder.”
What is the purpose of the divine establishment of marriage?
First of all, the propagation and preservation of mankind, as is seen in the words of God Himself, Who blessed the first people: be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:27-28).
Secondly, the mutual aid of spouses in this life: “And the Lord God said: it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper that is meet for him” (Gen. 2:18).
Thirdly, in order to restrain man’s sinful lusts and the chaotic inclinations of his sensuality. This purpose of marriage is pointed out by the apostle, who says: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman; nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:1-2).
The last and most important responsibility placed upon Christian spouses by the sacrament of marriage is the preparation of themselves and of their children, if God should please to grant them such, for eternal life, for future eternal bliss. All of us know that only true piety can make a person happy both in this and in the future life. This happiness can easily be attained by people united in marriage, if they, while loving each other, will at the same time love the Lord God above all; if above everything else they will prefer the fulfillment of God’s commandments; if by their own example they will compel each other to penitence; if they will help each other to tread the narrow path of virtue. Parents especially must regard as their great and sacred responsibility the nurturing of their children in the spirit of Christian piety; otherwise, having been the cause of their temporary life, they may easily become the cause of their eternal perdition. It is not enough for Christian parents themselves to be pious: their children must equally love God and be pious. The influence of the mother in the matter of religious/moral education of children is particularly indispensable.
Orthodox Christianity is a way of life, not merely something we do on Sunday morning and quickly forget when we leave the church. A way of life is a whole coming together of habits and attitudes, ideas and actions: a style of life, a way to live. For us Orthodox, Christianity is our daily bread. Like a fish in water, we must swim in our faith. As followers of Christ, we take our whole direction from Christ and His Church, and not from the standards of today’s world.
Most of us Orthodox Christians do not live in monasteries; we are married, we have homes, children, jobs. Among many married Orthodox there exists the mistaken idea that their following Christ does not require the same dedication required of the Orthodox monastic. But of course all Christians, whether monastic or not, are equally called by Christ to repentance and eternal salvation. There are no “classes” of Orthodox Christians – all are equal and all are expected to be followers of Christ, regardless of their position in the Church.
It is, however, very difficult for us non-monastic Christians to live an Orthodox lifestyle from day to day and year to year, because we are constantly exposed to and live within a society that is not only not Christian, but even at times, and increasingly, hostile to Orthodox Christian beliefs. But this should not discourage us, for Christ Himself understood the situation when He said: Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16).
A tremendous bastion of strength for Orthodox lay people in our circumstances is marriage and family life, a state that has been blessed by God for the salvation of each individual member of the family. In order to fully understand this, we must look at the doctrinal foundations of marriage found in Scripture and sacred Tradition – which are the ongoing conscience of the Church.
The righteous Joachim and Anna –
a supreme example of Christian marriage in the Old Testament
The Old Testament and the New Testament Views of Marriage
When we look at the practice of marriage, family life, and multiplication of the human race as described in the Old Testament, we are immediately aware of the fact that great emphasis was placed on the continuation of the Hebrew race. We have endless family trees given to us in the Old Testament. But marriage was not the only way by which the race was continued at that time. Children were also begotten through the custom of concubinage and the practice of having a man marry the widow of his brother, even though he might already have a wife. Many of the great personages of the Old Testament had multiple wives and concubines. This emphasis on perpetuating the race seems to us extreme. However, the primary reason for all of this mating was not the gratification of lust, but the desire for descendants. Sexual promiscuity was in no wise condoned by God in Old Testament times any more than He condones it in our own times. But during Old Testament times God began to reveal to man what His expectations were. Gradually we see that God condemned polygamous marriages, concubines, and the practice of marrying one’s brother’s widow. He began to shift the focus of marriage from procreation to a higher, spiritual level. Finally, God made His intentions very clear by the way He dealt with people who were involved in illicit sex. To us, who consider ourselves enlightened modern people, God’s actions might seem to be very harsh. But He was trying to make plain that He was the ultimate source of life, and not the physical union of a man and a woman. And where God is, there can be only holiness and mystery. What procreates and perpetuates life cannot be anything but a mystery. And holiness and mystery must be protected, guarded, and preserved against blasphemy, uncleanness, and irreverence. The way in which God dealt with sexual transgressions and perversions in the Old Testament makes it very clear that marriage is an extremely wonderful and holy mystery – so holy and mysterious, that any kind of sexual transgression is an abomination in God’s sight, and to be avoided at all costs.
With the coming of Christ, marriage no longer had as its primary goal the reproduction of human beings and the perpetuation of a family line, although procreation was still regarded as an important part of marriage. But Christ had come to the world and brought with Him the proof and guarantee of the resurrection of the dead, therefore giving to Christian marriage a new primary goal – the attainment of eternal life by husband, wife, and all children.
The marriage service in the Orthodox Church begins with the words “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” This exclamation emphasizes the seriousness of marriage, and also the goal of marriage. According to church canons, those Orthodox Christians who marry outside the Church are deprived of the sacraments of the Church. Some people find this shocking; they feel the Church is being too harsh. But the question is: what gives validity to a marriage? From a spiritual standpoint, what gives meaning to a marriage? Unlike the wedding ceremonies in most non-Orthodox churches, marriage in the Orthodox Church is not a contract – a legal agreement with the exchange of vows or promises – between two people. Rather, marriage is the setting up, by two people, of a miniature church, a family church, wherein people may worship the true God and struggle to save their souls. It is also a family church that is in obedience to Christ’s Church. As St. Basil the Great says, it is natural to marry, but it must be more than natural; it must be a yoke, borne by two people under the Church.
Thus we see that in New Testament times the focus of marriage was switched from a primary purpose of producing children to a primary purpose of providing a way for human beings to save their souls. The wedding ceremony itself is filled with rich symbolism that makes this whole aspect of marriage very clear.
(To be continued)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox America,” No. 154)
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
On March 9th (February 24th by the old calendar), the Church celebrates the first and second findings of the precious head of Saint John the Baptist.
When St. John the Baptist was beheaded at the iniquitous feast of King Herod, the daughter of Herodias took the precious head upon a salver and carried it to her mother. The sinful Herodias pierced with a needle the tongue of the saint who had so often denounced her evil deeds, and after treating the precious head sacrilegiously, she forbad its burial together with the Baptist’s body: Herodias was afraid that if John’s head were buried together with his body, he would arise from the dead and would again denounce her. St. John’s disciples secretly took his body and buried it during the night in the city of Sebastia in Samaria. The Baptist’s head was deeply buried by Herodias in Herod’s palace. Only one of her maids knew of the burial place, and sorrowing over the murder of the great prophet and the sacrilegious treatment of his head, she secretly dug it out during the night, put it in a clay vessel, and hid it on one of Herod’s estates on the Mount of Olives.
After a long time had passed, a certain nobleman by the name of Innocent bought this place on the Mount of Olives, which had formerly belonged to King Herod, built a cell for himself there, and became a monastic. Afterwards, wishing to build a small stone church for himself, he began to dig the earth to lay a foundation for the church, and found this clay vessel with the head of the Baptist, which began to manifest many wonders and miracles. Monk Innocent took care of this treasure with great reverence, but just before his death, seeing how paganism had once again become widespread all around him, he buried the Baptist’s head anew, in order to preserve it from further sacrilege.
During the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, two monks who had come to Jerusalem to venerate the holy tomb of Christ found the Baptist’s head on the Mount of Olives. Subsequently it was passed hereditarily from one Christian family to another, until it came into the possession of a certain Arian heretic by the name of Eustace, who hid it in a certain cave, where later a monastery was founded. By the will of God, the abbot of this monastery, Marcellus, guided by a miraculous vision of the Baptist himself, once again found this sacred treasure in A.D. 452, and the precious head again manifested great miracles.
Homily about two feasts
One of the feasts, described in the parable of the feast of the chosen, was given by the King in a spirit of goodwill and mercy. However, when the feast was ready, those who were invited did not come. Some preferred to take care of business, others of family matters; some, seizing the messengers, insulted them and even killed them. In great wrath the King punished the offenders, and then once again sent His servants to summon to the feast all those whom they met. This time many came to the feast, and when the King came in to look at them, He found one who was not dressed in festive raiment. The King asked him why he was not dressed properly, but the latter remained silent, thus showing disdain for the King and an unwillingness to participate in the feast, for which he was cast out. Thus, many were invited to the feast, but few were chosen to participate.
The other feast was not a parable, but reality. That was the feast of the iniquitous Herod. Apparently none of those who were invited refused to come, all were dressed festively, and had a merry time. The feast progressed with much drunkenness and lechery, unhampered by shame or conscience, and ended with one of the greatest crimes in history - the beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
These two feasts symbolize two ways of life, two kinds of delight. The first is the symbol of a spiritual feast, of spiritual pleasure. It is given by the Lord, and this feast is the Church of Christ. We are invited to this feast when we are summoned to attend church services, especially the Divine Liturgy, and to partake of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, to do good, to be spiritually attentive to ourselves. We refuse to attend this feast when we do not come to church, when we do evil instead of good, when we prefer temporal affairs to divine life. We come in improper garments when we bring a dark sinful attitude into our life. Each one of us is invited to this feast many times daily, and we refuse each time we prefer the carnal and the sinful to the spiritual and the divine.
We are also invited to the feast of Herod many times daily. We often do not notice right away that we are being tempted by evil. Sin begins with small things. Even Herod initially listened to St. John the Baptist with great pleasure, was acutely aware of the sinfulness of his own actions, but did not struggle against his sins, and finally ended up with murdering this greatest of saints. We attend this iniquitous Herod’s feast each time we choose evil over good, each time we choose carnal, sinful delights, mercilessness, inattentiveness to our souls, etc.
Having begun with small things, it is hard to stop in time, and if we do not make an effort to come to our senses, we can end up with the greatest sins and crimes, which will be followed by eternal damnation.
And even now St. John the Baptist cries out to each one of us: “Repent, for the Heavenly Kingdom is at hand.” Repent, in order to rejoice in the bright and eternal realm of the Lamb, Who has been sacrificed for the sins of the whole world, and to escape from sharing with the devil the feast of evil and torture in the outer darkness of hell.
Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco
On March 15th (the 2nd by the old calendar) the Church commemorates the icon of the “Sovereign” Mother of God.
Icons of the Theotokos have always held a special significance for the Russian people: not only because such a multitude of them appeared throughout the Russian land, not only because they worked such an abundance of miracles, but also because they often ruled over Russian history. Thus, for example, the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God defended the Russian people from Tatar invasions and destruction, while the Kazan icon of the Theotokos played an important role during the Time of Troubles (1605-1613) and the invasion by Napoleon (1812). Other icons, such as those of Pochaev and Lesna, had a more regional significance, defending their regions from enemy attacks, but all of them revealed the great charity of the Mother of God towards the Russian people.
The “Sovereign” icon of the Mother of God has a unique place in Russian history. It appeared in the Kolomenskoye village near Moscow on March 2, 1917, the very day that Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II abdicated the throne. Until 1812 the icon belonged to a convent in Moscow, but in the year of Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow it was hidden in the Kolomenskoye village and forgotten there for 105 years, until the time came for the icon to be revealed in accordance with God’s will. The icon was found among other old icons in the cellar of the church of Ascension, after the peasant woman Yevdokiya Adrianova was twice instructed in a dream to go to the Kolomenskoye village and search there for a special icon of the Mother of God. After being cleaned of centuries-old dust and grime, the icon revealed an image of the Theotokos sitting on a throne, with the Infant Christ on Her knees, extending His hand in blessing. The Holy Virgin held a scepter in one hand and an orb in the other, and had a crown on Her head. With Her regal air and unusually stern visage, Her appearance was majestic.
Significantly, the icon revealed itself at a time when the Russian Empire embarked on its apocalyptic course of destruction, while out of its depths came Holy Russia to gain the crown of martyrdom. The Theotokos’ red robe reflected the color of blood, while the icon’s appearance on the day of the abdication of the last Tsar, and the Theotokos’ regal air with all the attributes of royal power signified that the Mother of God Herself took sovereignty over the Russian people who had just lost their monarch.
BIBLICAL ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST PEOPLE
“And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed” (Genesis 2:8).
Summoned to a God-like life equal to the angels and to constant communion with God, to a greater and greater comprehension of God and likeness unto God, man was not supposed to be distracted from this most important goal in the world by any concern for himself in the world that had been created by God. For this reason the plants, extracting liquids from the earth and the air, performed for him the task of converting lifeless inorganic matter into organic matter capable of taking part in living processes; the animals served man, becoming submissively obedient to his will. Man could concentrate on communion with God.
The Lord gave man the commandment: “Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it” (Gen. 2:16-17).
As in each act of God, there are many meanings, many facets in this first commandment of God to man. Man’s freedom is being established in reality: man is free, he can either obey or disobey. There was no guardian, as the later archangel with a fiery sword, standing at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
This commandment was intended to educate man, to make him grow in love for God. Like the angels, man was created by God for a life of rapture and joy. A life of rapture is provided by a life of love. Man was created for a life of love for God and for creatures one-in-essence with him, i.e. for other humans above all: Adam for love for the one who in spirit had been created jointly with him, as another person of the same being, and in body was created from his rib, and Eve for her spiritual mate and bodily origin.
But love as a theoretical confession, as a simple statement of fact is fruitless and immobile, it does not develop, even more than that – it dries up. Love requires its manifestation. And the most direct and natural manifestation of love is the fulfillment of the beloved’s will. Thus in fulfilling God’s will: of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat, the love of Adam and Eve for God was to grow and develop, their will was to become stronger, their entire spiritual organization was to be perfected.
The Church rejects the ancient widespread belief that the eating of the forbidden fruit symbolized something else, in particular the physical joining of Adam and Eve. This union came about later, after the Fall, and in itself had no relation to it whatsoever.
The first people, childishly inexperienced, simple and primitive, more inexperienced even than modern children (for children, though lacking personal experience, now have the inherited experience that was lacking in Adam and Eve), these first people who were wise through grace-filled communion with God but absolutely simple personally, were to be given the very simplest commandment. God does give such a commandment: you may eat of all the trees, but do not eat of one of them. In this commandment we very easily recognize one of the simplest and most basic church commandments, ancient as the Church itself, accessible to all people, and yet so arrogantly disregarded today by so many – the commandment on fasting.
Why is the forbidden tree called the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Because man came out of God’s hands as an absolutely good creature without an iota of evil, and consequently could not know about good and evil. Through his eating of the forbidden fruit evil would enter into him, and he would begin to differentiate between it and his own inherent good with which he was invested by God. But God did not wish His most-loved creation to know evil. Just like parents in old-fashioned, good, strong families tried to guard their children as long as possible from knowing the worst and seamiest sides of life, so does God wish the same for His beloved earthly child.
It is absolutely futile to guess at how man’s fate would have turned out, if the originator of evil, the fallen angel, were not already in the world at that time, rejecting God and all His qualities. Motivated by all that was contrary to God and His qualities, i.e. by hate instead of love, ill will instead of goodwill, the devil – Satan – the dragon, “that old serpent, called the devil and Satan” (Rev. 12:9), could not but attempt to incite God’s new creatures – the humans – to the same insurgency against God and disobedience to Him, in which he himself had engaged and had involved the multitude of spirits who had fallen together with him.
St. Basil the Great speaks thusly of this: “The devil, seeing himself ousted from the host of Angels, could not look with indifference upon how the human creation was succeeding in being elevated to angelic honor.”
And the serpent said to the woman: “Yea, hath God truly said: ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden”?
Having rebelled against the Truth, the father of deceit is unable to speak the truth. The devil is a slanderer; he uses slander in the very first words that man hears from him. He knows that God had allowed the first people to eat of all the trees except one. This commandment concerning the one tree the devil wishes to libelously present as God’s prohibition to eat of all the trees. At the same time, the slander is constructed in such a way that at a superficial glance it does not strike the eye. People who read the Bible inattentively often do not notice right away the slander in these devil’s words. In this ancient technique of Satan’s we likewise easily recognize his modern maligning techniques, both on the wide scale of various contemporary antireligious and anti-Christian forces, as well as in one’s own soul, when grumbling against God or maligning our neighbors in anger. This is just another confirmation of the lack of creative diversity in God’s enemy and of the sameness of his techniques in tempting humans throughout many millennia.
And the woman said to the serpent: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”
By the very fact that she enters into conversation with the serpent despite having heard him malign God, Eve shows that love for God has not been kindled within her, has not developed, has not grown. And in her response she clearly yields to the serpent’s lie: she also slanders God to some degree, exaggerates His demand, describes His commandment inaccurately. God did not say: “neither shall ye touch it.” If Eve had described God’s words with absolute accuracy and truthfulness, the devil would have perhaps run from her, for he not only abhors, but cannot stand the absolute truth of God’s words. But a distorted half-truth, however, he is able to stand and thus continues his slander.
“And the serpent said unto the woman: ye shall not surely die, for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
This slander is sophisticated and significant. God created people to be God-like and to gradually become more and more like unto Him through love for Him, as St. Basil the Great teaches: “We are creatures, but are summoned to become gods through grace.”
Afterwards the Son of God would come down to earth in order to deify man, as the church hymns continuously tell us. “God became man so that man would become god.” If the devil did not know this plan of God for man, for he does not know God’s plans, he still could have guessed it, because such was God’s plan for him, too, when he was still an angel of light, since God had created the angels also to become like unto God. Therefore, Satan knew that the temptation “ye shall be as gods” was very real for the human soul, which was created expressly for that purpose. But instead of becoming like unto God in love for God and in union with Him, the devil offers likeness unto himself in rebellion and disobedience to God.
“And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.”
The devil does not know the depths of the human soul that is still uncorrupted by sin, but he is quite cognizant of all the superficial movements of the soul that are tied to its essentially neutral physical nature, which can be equally directed towards good or evil. And these movements, just as everything else that he has on hand, he mobilizes in this decisive moment of enticement, subsequently repeating this technique of enticement millions and millions of times on all humans through-out the entire centuries-old and sorrowful history of mankind. “Lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, worldly vanity,” – so do the Holy Fathers, who know human nature, label this threefold temptation used by the devil upon our foremother at the dawn of time.
“And she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.” – A catastrophe of cosmic proportions occurred here, yet how simply and outwardly unnoticeably. Thunders did not roar, the heavens did not tremble, the mountains did not shake – nothing outwardly reacted to this terrible catastrophe that broke up the entire universe, broke up God’s entire design for the world He had created.
(To be continued)
Archbishop Nathaniel (Lvov)
THE REDEMPTION OF MANKIND
Christ was crucified on the Cross –
And prayed for all His adversaries.
Around Him people jeered and mocked –
But He forgave their mortal blindness…
To Him barbarian or Greek were one.
It made no difference – slave or master.
In all He saw a human being,
The same law did He give to all.
To all He held out His embrace,
For all He opened up the heavens,
And told us: “All of you are brethren,
For all I suffered unto death!”
– A. Maykov
– Translated by Natalia Sheniloff