The Doors/Gates of the Pilgrimage of Salvation

Journey is essential to the saving work of God in time and space. Lent is a multifaceted journey. More aptly put, it is a journey of and into the paradox – the Mystery – of our salvation. Into Christ.

  • From and to.
  • Out of and into and deeper into.
  • Through
  • Renunciation and affirmation.
  • Relinquishing and taking up.
  • Lamentation and rejoicing.
  • Loss and gain.
  • Death and life.

It is a journey from death to life; from chaos to order. A journey requiring discipline, vigilance, and perseverance. And these the outpouring of the grace of the Holy Spirit when we have come to the end of being able to do them ourselves. (Hint: Lent is not about us “being successful.” It is about humility.)

During Vespers on Saturday evening before the Sunday of Forgiveness, we heard these words:

“The arena of the virtues has been opened.
Let all who wish to struggle for the prize now enter,
girding themselves for the noble contest of the Fast;
for those that strive lawfully are justly crowned.”

And yet again, at a latter point, these words:

“Adam was driven out of Paradise,
because in disobedience he had eaten food;
but Moses was granted the vision of God,
because he had cleansed the eyes of his soul by fasting.
If then we long to dwell in Paradise,
let us abstain from all needless food;
and if we desire to see God,
let us like Moses fast for forty days…
The time is now at hand for us to start upon the spiritual contest
and to gain the victory over the demonic powers.”

During the Rite of Forgiveness at Forgiveness Sunday Vespers we heard these words:

“Let us humble the flesh by abstinence:
As we follow the divine path of pure fasting…
That passing through the Fast as through a great sea
we may reach the Resurrection on the Third Day,
of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls.”

Again and again, we hear and speak the language of journey. The journey of salvation.

Another aspect of this journey are the gates/doors we encounter. Scripture is filled with the image of gates and doors. They are essential to the message of salvation. I encourage you to do a word study of the passages. I is a fruitful study.

In the liturgical heritage of the Church, these door/gates are reiterated. The gates of repentance and paradise.

“Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.”

and

“O precious Paradise, unsurpassed in beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints, with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Maker of all: may He open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.”

As we pass through the gates of repentance let us set our face toward the gates of paradise. Indeed, let us realize, along the way in a refreshed manner during these forty days, that the two gates are actually two different encounters with the same gate/door the door of salvation which is Christ Jesus crucified and raised.

Note: All quotes are from , The Lenten Triodion, Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, trs.(London 1978).

Advertisements

Upward Call – The Way Up is Down

“The earthly life of Christ in its entirety, from His appearance in the world to His ‘departure’ upon the cross, constitutes the path of his kenosis. The crucifixion, which is the pinnacle of self-emptying, makes manifest the extreme humility of God. The archetype of ‘Jesus Christ, and Him crucified’ constitutes the core of St. Paul’s ‘gospel’ and his principle concern as he equips and consolidates the faithful [cf. 1 Cor. 2: 2; Gal. 3: 1]. He calls the faithful to keep this model before their eyes and to walk the same path. Whoever wants to be raised up to the sphere where Christ lives must beforehand follow Him on this path of humility and self-denying descent [see Eph. 4: 9-10].

Christ’s kenosis is the beginning and the condition of any spiritual ascent. It is offered to the faithful as a path of true life, which conquers death and brings to life in them ‘the fulness of the divine image’. Only ‘by the gift of the Holy Spirit’ can the faithful, as members of the Church, ‘know existentially, by actual experience’, this mystery of Christ’s kenosis.

Life lived in kenotic love, as revealed by the only-begotten Son of God, was given to man in the form of an injunction that we love God with all our being and our neighbour as ourselves [cf. Matt. 22: 37-40]… The commandment of the Heavenly Father was fulfilled by Christ in His kenosis. The kenosis of man, in its turn, is expressed above all by the keeping of the double commandment of love towards God and one’s neighbour. But it is impossible for man in his fallen state to fulfil adequately the divine and ‘exceedingly broad’ [Ps. 118/ 119: 96] commandment of the Lord. His mind and heart must be healed in order to become capable of rising to the height of the divine injunctions. Precisely for this reason man’s proper response to God’s call is repentance, which all the commandments entail, and through which man is healed.”

— Excerpted from Christ, Our Way and Our Life, by Archimandrite Zacharias, published by Saint Tikhon’s Monastery Press.

Upward Call

People ask me why I chose the name “Upward Call” for this ministry.  The saints have consistently spoken of the Christian life, as a journey, a pilgrimage. What is more, they speak of it as an “ascent” — a journey upward (glorification) by going downward (humility). The way up is down. Another way, it seems to me, of speaking of the “eye of the needle.” The faithful struggle that can, if we say yet another “Gethsemane yes”, inform the meaning and significance of any and all struggles we may face.

Jesus goes “up” to Jerusalem to be “lifted up” and “descend” into the grave to be “raised up.” There it is again — paradox.

The gospel for today and the reflection on it by St. Augustine is a good example of the witness of the New Testament and the saints regarding the upward call. The life of ascent.

[51] When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. [52] And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; [53] but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. [54] And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” [55] But he turned and rebuked them. [56] And they went on to another village. Luke 9.51-56

 

The weight of our fragility makes us bend towards realities here below; the fire of your love, O Lord, raises us up and bears us towards realities above. We rise there by means of our heart’s impetus, singing the songs of ascent. We burn with your fire, the fire of your goodness, for it is this that transports us.

Where is it that you thus cause us to rise? To the peace of the heavenly Jerusalem. “I rejoiced when I heard them say: Let us go to the house of the Lord” (Ps 122[121],1). Nothing will bring us to it except the desire to remain there for ever. While we are in the body, we journey towards you. Here below we have no abiding city; we are constantly seeking our home in the city to come (Heb 13,14). May your grace guide me, O Lord, into the depths of my heart, there to sing of your love, my King and my God… And as I remember that heavenly Jerusalem my heart will rise up towards it: to Jerusalem my true homeland, Jerusalem my mother (Gal 4,26). You are its King, its light, its defender, its protector, its pastor; you are its unquenchable joy; your goodness is the source of all its inexpressible blessings… – you, my God and my divine mercy. Saint Augustine (354-430), Meditations, ch.18

And, of course, the passage that resonates in my deepest heart:

[7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. [8] Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ [9] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; [10] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  [11] that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. [12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [15] Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you.  [16] Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Philippians 3.7-16

Lord, grant me the grace to say my upward/downward “yes” today.

Come and See – Go and Tell: All Heaven and Hell Breaks Loose

Hope your Christmas day was amazingly wonderful. But Christmas is not over. In the Holy Tradition offered to us by the Holy Spirit, we are just getting started !!!

Today and the next couple of days are very important. The Church desires to share an essential aspect of the character of the saving message of Christmas.

The following is the fruit of my quiet time this morning. It is my meager articulation, of the point the Church has sought, over the centuries to make, so we do not get the wrong idea about Christmas or the gospel. I say meager because you can find, if you do some “googling” a wealth of reflections by the saints on all of this.

——————–

Christmas – December 25
Feast of the Protomartyr Stephen – December 26 (December 27th in East)
Feast of the Holy Innocents – December 28 (December 29th in East)

That may seem strange…

The story says,

[8] And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
[9] And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
[10] And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people;
[11] for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
[12] And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
[14] “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
[15] When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
[16] And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
[17] And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child;
[18] and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
[19] But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.
[20] And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2.8-20)

The shepherds:

  • Were told Good News
  • Invited to come and see the verification – experience the truth – of the Good News apparently without subtracting or adding anything (“as it had been told them”)
  • They went and saw
  • They made known the truth that had been told them and their experience
  • Those who heard it wondered
  • The shepherds returned to their previous occupations filled with praise to God

So, “coming and seeing” results in “experiencing” which results in “going and telling.”

Such are the raw materials of witnessing.

Notice the lack of argumentation and debate and the like and the abundance of wonder and pondering and considering deeply.

All seems well. Everyone is happy. Well, not everyone.

Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr (witness) of the faith. Why the day after the feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?!

Juxtaposition. Remember what St. John says,

[4] In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
[5] The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
[6] There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
[7] He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.
[8] He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
[9] The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.
[10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.
[11] He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. (John 1.4-11)

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was born to reconcile and reunite what had been alienated and divided.

[18] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;
[19] that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
[20] So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
[21] For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5.18-21)

The Christmas story – narrative witness – is not just one of affirmation. It is one that includes repudiation, rejection, violence. It involves not just birth but death. The fullness of life in the setting in which the Word of God became incarnate testifies to a victory that includes BOTH acceptance and birth, the words of Mary sum up all of them – “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1.38); and rejection and death , the words of St. Luke regarding the reaction of those who heard the witness of Stephen sum up all of them – “when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him” (Acts 7.54).

This is the reason today’s feast of St. Stephen is followed, on December 29th, by the feast of the Holy Innocents – the story of Herod’s reaction to the birth of Jesus Christ and the consequences of it.

St. Cyprian speaks of this mysterious juxtaposition,

The Apostle John said: “Whoever says he abides in Christ, ought to walk even as Christ walked” (1Jn 2,6). Moreover, the blessed Apostle Paul exhorts and teaches us, saying: “We are God’s children; but if children, then heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him that we may also be glorified together” (Rm 8,16f.)… Let us, beloved brethren, imitate righteous Abel, who initiated martyrdom, he being the first to be slain for righteousness’ sake (Gn 4,8)…; let us imitate the three children Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, who… overcame the king by the power of faith (Dn 3)… What of the prophets whom the Holy Spirit quickened to a foreknowledge of future events? What of the apostles whom the Lord chose? Since these righteous men were slain for righteousness’ sake, have they not taught us also to die?

The nativity of Christ at once witnessed the martyrdom of infants, so that they who were two years old and under were slain for his name’s sake. An age not yet fitted for the battle appeared fit for the crown. That it might be manifest that they who are slain for Christ’s sake are innocent, innocent infancy was put to death for his name’s sake… How grave is the case of a Christian, if he, a servant, is unwilling to suffer when his Master first suffered…! The Son of God suffered that he might make us sons of God, and the son of man will not suffer that he may continue to be a son of God!… The Maker and Lord of the world also warns us, saying: “If the world hate you, remember that it hated me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world… remember the word that I said to you: “The servant is not greater than his lord” (Jn 15,18-20). (Letter 55)

AND, let’s be careful to allow juxtaposition to be an invitation into a life of mystery not an invitation to attempt to solve a contradiction and smooth out the difficult territory (edgy life) into which the “Glad Tidings” of Christmas invite us. To solve it and separate the happy stories from the sad ones would be to oppose the very thing the Incarnation is intended to do, reunite what has been divided and alienated. We have divided the happy and the sad because we cannot conceive what only the eyes of the heart and a heart of love can know and in which it can participate and facilitate; namely that the union of these “opposites” is the key to our salvation (the cross and empty tomb). The angels did say, after all, “I bring you good news of a great joy.” Well, this is the architecture of joy.

The Good News always defies and frustrates our attempts to corral and manage and control it and institutionalize it (the liberal or the conservative versions). It breaks out… The Good News challenges us to lean into juxtaposition not as an example of contradiction but as an example of a new territory in which to live. An new heaven and a new earth in which Mystery is descriptive of what is normal rather than a word we invent for the abnormal or miraculous.

The light shines in the darkness to overcome the darkness. And darkness is dark and does the deeds of darkness.  But, the darkness does not overcome the light. It is overcome by the light. The Mystery of the Incarnation is the Mystery of the recreation of “what is” into a new “what is.” It involves not just Mary and Joseph but Stephen and the Holy Innocents.

The story of the mystery of the Incarnation must include the reaction of evil to it. The joy the angels proclaim to the shepherds and to the world, mysteriously necessitates not just birth but also death. Not just acceptance but the possibility of rejection. The victory of new and abundant life in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ necessitates a life lived in the environment of mystery, wonder, love, and praise which is the messy environment of salvation.

Advent 1 — Participating in the Two (or is it Three) Comings of Christ: Crucible of Transformation

Here is a re-post of an article I posted in 2010. It helps to continue my train of thought regarding the transformative character of seasonality. Specifically the way in which we are changed by living into the paradox of participating in both the first and second comings of Christ Jesus.

St. Aelred (1110 – 12 January 1167), was a Christian of the British Isles. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” summarizes his life, thusly:

Aelred decided to become a Cistercian monk, in the recently founded abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. Soon he was appointed master of novices, and was long remembered for his extraordinary tenderness and patience towards those under his charge. In 1143 when William, Earl of Lincoln, founded a new Cistercian abbey upon his estates at Revesby in Lincolnshire, St. Aelred was sent with twelve monks to take possession of the new foundation. His stay at Revesby, where he seems to have met St. Gilbert of Sempringham, was not of long duration, for in 1146 he was elected abbot of Rievaulx. In this position the saint was not only superior of a community of 300 monks, but 4.2.7he was head of all the Cistercian abbots in England… Aelred undertook a mission to the barbarous Pictish tribes of Galloway, where their chief is said to have been so deeply moved by his exhortations that he became a monk. Throughout his last years Aelred gave an extraordinary example of heroic patience under a succession of infirmities. He was, moreover, so abstemious that he is described as being “more like a ghost than a man.” His death is generally supposed to have occurred 12 January, 1166, although there are reasons for thinking that the true year may be 1167. St. Aelred left a considerable collection of sermons, the remarkable eloquence of which has earned for him the title of the English St. Bernard.

Here is one of his sermons for the First Sunday in Advent.

The present holy season which we call Advent directs our thoughts to our Lord’s twofold coming. We have therefore a double reason for rejoicing because we are meant to derive from it a double benefit.

Advent calls to mind the two comings of our Lord: first the coming of the fairest of the sons of men and the desire of all nations, so long awaited and so fervently prayed for by all the fathers when the Son of God graciously revealed to the world his visible presence in the flesh, that is to say when he came into the world to save sinners; the other that second coming to which we look forward no less than did our fathers of old. While we await his return our hope is sure and firm, yet we also frequently remind ourselves with tears of the day when he who first came to us concealed in our flesh will come again revealed in the glory which belongs to him as Lord. Of that day the psalmist sings: God will come openly;it is the Day of Judgment when Christ will come as judge in the sight of all. Our Lord’s first coming was indeed known only to a small number of good people, but his second will be evident to good and bad alike, as is known to us by the prophet’s announcement: All flesh will see the salvation of God.

To speak more precisely, however, the day we are shortly to celebrate in memory of our Lord’s birth brings him before us as a newborn child, that is to say it more expressly signifies the day and the hour when he first came into the world, whereas the season we keep beforehand represents him to us as the longed-for Messiah and reminds us of the yearning that filled the hearts of those holy fathers of ours who lived before his coming.

How beautifully then at this season the Church provides that we should recite the words and recall the longing of those who lived before our Lord’s first advent! Nor do we commemorate that desire of theirs for a single day, but share it so to speak for a long period of time, because when something we greatly love and long for is deferred for a while it usually seems sweeter to us when it does arrive.

It is our duty then to follow the example and recall the longing of the holy fathers and so inflame our own souls with love and longing for Christ. You must understand that the reason why this season was instituted was to inspire us to remember the desire of our holy fathers for our Lord’s first coming, and through their example learn to have a great longing for the day when he will come again. We should consider how much good our Lord did us by his first coming, and how much more he will do for us by his second. This thought will help us to have a great love for that first coming of his and a great longing for his return. And if our conscience is not so perfect that we dare entertain such a desire, we ought at least to fear his second coming and by means of that fear to correct our faults, so that if perhaps we cannot help being afraid here and now, we shall at least be secure and fearless when he comes again.  St. Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx (1110 – 12 January 1167), Sermon for Advent 1rom, The Two Year Lectionary, Patristic Vigils, Readings, Advent & Christmastide, Year 1

So, if we take this whole matter to its transformative end, there are actually three comings of Christ Jesus. The “present coming” is the point where the first and second converge and have their effect. This was the contention of Pierre de Blois (c.1130-1211), an English arcchdeacon who served King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury as a secretary and diplomat.

Now we are in the second advent [the third coming – fr.t], provided we are such that he can thus come to us, since he said that, if we love him, he will come to us and make his home in us (Jn 14,23).

My prayer is that you will “follow the example and recall the longing of the holy fathers,” such as St. Aelred; and that He will “mightily enflame” your soul “with love and longing for Christ” as you journey with others through the Advent season and experience the third coming of Christ.

Fr. Thomas